By Ian Thomsen
May 09, 2010

Rajon Rondo has emerged as one of the most valuable players of this NBA postseason and the most effective player of this series while dominating all three phases Sunday with 29 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists in Boston's 97-87 Game 4 win, equalizing the conference semifinal 2-2 going into Game 5 at Cleveland.

1. Where's Rondo? Every 11-year old player in America can dream of growing up to become Rondo, the Celtics' 24-year-old, 6-foot-1 point guard. With 1:34 left and both feet in the paint he was looking up at the giants as he leaped to pull away an offensive rebound and then hoist it back up for the clinching 92-85 advantage. "He has, like, a 6-9 wingspan, he plays much bigger than what he looks,'' said LeBron James. "If you mess up on a coverage, he's going to exploit it. He is an unbelievable talent and a rare talent.''

Only two other players in playoff history -- and none in the last 43 years -- have approached Rondo's across-the-line dominance: Oscar Robertson had 32 points, 19 rebounds and 13 assists in 1963, and Wilt Chamberlain went for 29 points, 36 rebounds and 13 assists in '67. When Rondo went to the free throw line with 17.8 seconds remaining, he was greeted by chants of "MVP, MVP.'' He appeared to take a bow, but in fact he was stretching his tired limbs after playing all but 72 seconds. (The Celtics were a minus-4 points on the scoreboard during his brief moments of rest.)

After a frightening 7-0 start by the Cavs, the Celtics responded by scoring 24 of the next 34 points as Rondo took command. By halftime they were up 54-45 as he led everyone in points (18), rebounds (eight) and assists (seven). The tempo was all his as the Celtics were pushing the ball out of their backcourt and into the open floor, even scoring occasionally in transition after a Cleveland basket. They overcome a 1-for-14 performance at the three-point line by shooting 53.2 percent inside the arc.

This performance underlined Rondo's growth since Boston's 2008 postseason run to the championship, when the Celtics were worried about winning in spite of their second-year point guard. Two years later Rondo is making it possible for his teammates to remain in contention after a season filled with injuries and rumored trades that theatened their relevancy. "He's a point guard that has complete control of our team,'' said Boston coach Doc Rivers. "When we won it, he was still trying to figure out how to help a team win. Now we rely on him to win.''

Not only did Rondo outrebound Cleveland 4-3 on the offensive board, but he doubled the Cavs' rebounding leader (James with nine) and had more rebounds than his fellow starters combined. For years the Celtics have scolded Rondo to worry less about rebounding and more about getting back on defense or pushing the ball into their offense, but on this day they were simply thanking him for keeping the Celtics alive. "He was getting all of the 50-50 balls, he was just controlling the game,'' said Celtics forward Kevin Garnett. "You try to tell him to get his little a-- out of there, but when he's getting 18, what can you say?''

"The best way for us to start a fast break is when I rebound,'' said Rondo. "I had a mindset to help the bigs on the boards. [The Cavs] take a lot of threes, so that means there's going to be a lot of long rebounds.''

Rondo's control of the ball and refusal to yield turnovers that led to easy baskets marked a major reversal from Game 3 as Boston outscored the visitors 23-7 in transition and 13-0 on second-chances.

Rondo entered the fourth quarter with a LeBronish triple-double of 21 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists thanks to two plays to close out the third. In the open court he coyly lured James to attempt a block from behind as Rondo launched himself toward the rim before completing a behind-the-back pass while airborne to Tony Allen trailing for a dunk. Then he drove and whipped a roundhouse pass to Allen as he cut along the baseline for a reverse layup to end the quarter.

Rondo is exploiting the postseason No. 1 seed and one of the league's top defensive teams for 21.8 points, 13.0 assists (against a mere 4.0 turnovers) and 8.3 rebounds over the series' four games. This performance will create second-guessing that Rondo should have refused the preseason extension he signed for five years at $55 million. But he and agent Bill Duffy recognized the value of starring for the Celtics, much as Tony Parker (whose $11 million average salary Rondo was seeking to match) and Manu Ginobili have understood the importance of playing for the Spurs when they might have demanded more money on the open market. In addition, the longterm security helped Rondo establish his role in command of the Celtics over the course of this regular season.

His ascension as an All-Star this season can be traced back to his hard work throughout last summer. "He wanted a new contract,'' said Rivers, "but I think Rondo is so competitive that he worked out because he didn't like how he played in the Orlando series [that ended Boston's 2009 postseason] and he wanted to be a better basketball player. That was a driving force. I've always thought the good players want to get paid, but they play [at a high level] because they're competitive. And I think Rondo's in that category.''

Garnett looked almost sentimental as he took in Rondo's stat line, as if he recalled his younger days when he was beginning to realize his own enormous potential. "This is the reason you work your butt off in the summertime,'' he said, "to have games like this.''

2. Defense. After enabling the Cavs to shoot almost 60 percent during a blowout 124-95 loss in Game 3 Friday, the Celtics responded quickly and firmly after falling behind 7-0 in the opening moments Sunday. They would limit the Cavs to 40.3 percent from the field, and once more the credit started with Rondo.

"His ball pressure was the biggest, biggest part of the entire game,'' said Rivers. "We didn't feel like we applied much ball pressure at all in Game 3, and unfortunately for Rondo, that's his job, him and Tony [Allen]. I thought that was the biggest difference because they didn't get into their stuff as quickly as they did in Game 3, and it allowed us to help and do other things -- and that was Rondo. That might have been the hardest thing he had to do, and we were concerned about that robbing him of his energy. And then to go out and do the rebounding and the passing and the scoring, it was just an amazing effort."

3. 2008 Redux. While James led Cleveland with an impressive 22 points, nine rebounds and eight assists, he needed 18 shots and he committed seven turnovers in 43 minutes. That up-and-down line was reminiscent of his seven-game conference semifinal against Boston two years ago, when his positives were offset by important negatives.

"We went to the free throw line 39 times, so that's really aggressive,'' said James. "I was inconsisstent coming off pick and rolls, if I wanted to shoot it or make passes, and I turned the ball over uncharacteristic of myself.''

Apart from Game 3 and minority stretches of Games 1 and 2, this series has been played to Rondo's tempo more than to James'. Now that Rondo has exploited matchups against 6-foot point guard Mo Williams and 6-6 Anthony Parker, will 6-8 James be assigned to guard him? While James succeeded in defending Chicago point guard Derrick Rose in the previous round, he acknowledged that the Celtics' wealth of scoring options would make it difficult for him to move away from his traditional matchup against Paul Pierce (an assignment that has gone heavily in James' favor thus far).

"I would love to,'' said James when asked about guarding Rondo. "It's something that we may[be] should explore because Rondo is definitely dominating this series at the point guard position. If the coaching staff or the guys want me to do it, I will.''

4. Shaq strikes back. After three quarters Shaquille O'Neal had 17 points on nine shots (he was a highly impressive 7-of-11 from the line) and two blocks, but he would produce no more after picking his fifth foul in the opening minute of the fourth.

The Celtics responded to Shaq's absence by launching an 8-0 run to boost their lead to 84-72, creating an advantage that Cleveland would never quite overcome (trimming it to 86-84 before Boston pulled away again). For almost four minutes the Cavs wouldn't get the ball to the rim as they committed three turnovers and suffered two blocked shots by Rasheed Wallace, who exploited his length advantage to protect the rim.

The Cavs might have used O'Neal against Boston's big lineup as a target around the basket to settle down their offense and slow Rondo's transition game. But O'Neal never returned. "Shaq played extremely well,'' said James, "and I was kind of surprised not to see him back on the floor the whole fourth quarter.''

5. A tale of two Allens. In his own way Ray Allen was as marvelous as Rondo. Though Allen was 1-for-8 from three, he played excellent defense on James for long stretches and at age 34 he remained fresh enough to play 38 minutes while scoring 18 points (7-for-13 inside the arc).

Tony Allen also helped to guard James while going 6-of-7 off the bench as the Celtics' second unit outscored Cleveland's bench 23-11. Though Wallace was 0-for-3 from the field, Rivers credited him with a big defensive role over his 20 minutes. "Rasheed was amazing,'' said Rivers. "Energy and rebounding and he did so many of the little things.''

The Celtics have now evened the series even though Pierce gave them only nine points Sunday and is averaging 11.8 points on 32.0 percent shooting over the four games. If he breaks out offensively, he could make the difference in what is now a best-of-three series. "We knew it would be a tough series for him defensively,'' said Rivers of Pierce. "That guy [James] is a monster over there. He takes a lot of energy away from you. Part of the reason Paul is struggling is because he's been in foul trouble in every game.

"But you take one for the team, and sometimes that may be guarding LeBron. I think Paul's doing a terrific job of that."

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