BOSTON -- The Celtics' Rajon Rondo had every reason to get down on himself.
In Game 5 of the NBA Finals, he submitted a three-point, two-assist, two-turnover clunker. That performance came on the heels of a marginally better five-point, two-assist effort in Game 4.
His coach was starting to get down on him -- "[Rondo] is not playing well right now," Doc Rivers said after Game 5. "He's got to look to make more plays and be aggressive to the basket" -- and his competition in the Celtics' backcourt, namely Eddie House and Sam Cassell, was starting to distinguish itself. House chipped in 11 points in 25 minutes off the bench in Game 4, while Cassell contributed nine points in 18 minutes in Game 5. The critics, many of whom suggested Boston could never win a championship with a non-shooting, second-year point guard, returned in full force.
Good news, Boston. Rondo didn't listen.
Playing in the biggest game of his life, Rondo was arguably the best Celtic on the floor Tuesday night when Boston buried the Lakers 131-92 to win the NBA title in six games. Though he shot only 8-for-20 from the field, Rondo spearheaded Boston's superior defensive effort, finishing with six steals (including one monster rip from the hands of the 6-foot-10, 230-pound Lamar Odom) to go with his 21 points, eight assists and seven rebounds.
"Rondo was the star," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "He was the guy out there that made the plays, got the steals, pushed their offense into high drive and created havoc for us."
Said Rivers: "I was so proud of Rondo. He was really struggling, and to fight his way through that and to play with the energy and the toughness that he played with was absolutely fantastic."
To call Rondo "oft-criticized" would be a dramatic understatement. After the arrival of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in the offseason, Rondo was viewed as perhaps one of the few impediments in Boston's drive toward a championship. Despite Rondo's solid rookie year in which he averaged 6.4 points and 3.8 assists in 23.5 minutes, there was much speculation about Boston's need to bring in a veteran floor leader. Names like Mike Bibby, Andre Miller and Damon Stoudamire were bandied about.
Though the Celtics remained committed to Rondo (he started 77 games this season), they did add the 38-year-old Cassell as a free agent in March, an indication, perhaps, that they weren't entirely comfortable going into the postseason with an inexperienced play caller.
Turns out, the Celtics didn't need Cassell. Rondo excelled in the first-round series against Atlanta, averaging 11.6 points and 7.3 assists while matched up with Bibby. He followed that up with a 10.6/6.0 performance in the second round against Cleveland. He continued to put his stamp on the playoffs in the Eastern Conference finals, averaging 9.2/6.5 against his nemesis, Detroit's Chauncey Billups, the player the Celtics weren't convinced Rondo could defend.
Rivers never considered a lineup change despite Rondo's early struggles in the Finals. The coach said he told Rondo, "You'll be right there at the beginning of the game. Just be aggressive. I will never fault you for being aggressive."
Rondo, however, was a little rattled after back-to-back poor games in Los Angeles.
"Before the game, I was going through a lot," Rondo said. "I talked toRayabout 20 minutes before the game. He said just let the frustration go and he told me I could still be a threat for the team. I just had to go out there and be aggressive. No matter how many shots I missed, I kept attacking the rim, making Kobe play defense. I didn't want to give him the night off like I did the last couple of nights."
He didn't. As Rondo walked off the dais after his postgame news conference, a jubilant Garnett grabbed him and pulled him tight. "What are they going to say about you now, boy?" Garnett said. "What are they going to say about you now?"