BOSTON -- The Celtics' championship era ended when Rajon Rondo suffered a gruesomely dislocated elbow with 7:02 remaining in the third quarter of Game 3 Saturday.
Then it began again, seven minutes and two seconds later. Rondo returned to drive Boston to a series-saving 97-81 win that prevented the Heat from seizing a 3-0 lead. "That was a championship-level response,'' said coach Erik Spoelstra, who had seen his team control the first two games in Miami. "We understand fully now how tough it is to take down a champion.''
Rondo's dislocated left elbow was the modern-day equivalent to the hamstrung right leg of Willis Reed four decades ago. There can be no comparison with Paul Pierce, who was accused by Phil Jackson and others of exaggerating his injury in Game 1 of the 2008 Finals, when he was taken off in a wheelchair and came back minutes later to run the court and knock down threes. No one can doubt what happened here: When Rondo was shouldered to the floor by Dwyane Wade, his left elbow bent backward. "I still haven't seen it, and I've heard that I don't want to see it,'' said Boston coach Doc Rivers of photographs. "I've never seen the [Joe] Theismann injury, and I don't plan on seeing this one. Probably it helped me that I didn't see it, because if I had, from what I hear, it would have been tough to put him back in the game.''
But Rivers was ambivalent about the long-term impact of this night. He didn't sound optimistic about seeing Rondo or backup point guard Delonte West, who said he suffered a left rotator cuff injury near the end of the first half that required a shot to enable him to keep playing. "It's going to be tough,'' said Rivers. "Delonte is worse than you think.''
The Celtics might have lost if not for Rondo's injury. Paul Pierce was aggressive early -- "he set the tone,'' said Rivers -- and so was Kevin Garnett, but it wasn't enough. The Celtics looked overwhelmed while missing seven of eight layups in the second quarter against Miami's tomahawking defense. LeBron James had five blocks overall, and throughout the first half Boston looked as if it would have to shoot with unsustainable accuracy in order to hold off Miami. When Mario Chalmers (7-of-9 shooting for 17 second-unit points) drilled a corner three midway through the second, the Celtics were converting at 54.2 percent (13 of 24) and yet trailing 36-34.
They had been feistier to start the second half by outscoring Miami 16-4, even though Rondo had enjoyed little of his anticipated impact. He had been held to two points on five shots and his 10 assists had been offset by five turnovers when he poked the dribble away from Wade midway through the third quarter. In the skirmish thereafter Wade bucked Rondo to the floor. "We got tangled up and I tried to brace my fall,'' said Rondo.
"I thought he broke his elbow,'' said West. "Close up it looked as though the bone came out. I'm just excited it wasn't broken.''
Much as Garnett stayed close earlier this year when teammate Marquis Daniels suffered a frightening neck injury, so too did he talk Rondo through this traumatic time. "Thank God for Kevin because I was having trouble breathing,'' said Rondo. "I just kept hearing him tell me to breathe. Everything else took care of itself.''
The Celtics anticipated the worst outcome. "The first report was: dislocated, out, basically for good,'' said Rivers, who received that report minutes after Rondo had been carried off the floor in agony. "And nearly 30 seconds later I was in the huddle and saw Rondo walk by me. And it looked like he was going to play.''
Rivers had spent the intervening minutes counseling the Celtics, and Garnett in particular, to channel their negative energies. "Kevin was furious,'' said Rivers. "He just didn't like what happened.''
Wade (a team-leading 23 points) was booed at every touch thereafter. "We never want to see anyone hurt, whether it is a friend or not a friend,'' said Wade. "It's someone that we have respect for in this game. Kudos to him for coming back, that's a tough injury to come back from that fast. It shows a lot as a leader to come back and have the performance that he had with that injury. We want [to play] the Boston Celtics -- we want them to be whole. Hopefully Monday he is there and he is ready to go.''
Rivers didn't want his players to give up on the game or the season by seeking retribution against Wade. "I was worried about all of them,'' he said. "I said, 'Guys, we just got to play.' You know they wanted to, because they didn't like what happened. But we held back, and even late in the game I called the one timeout and said, 'Hey! Nothing. Do it with your play.' Because with the injuries that we had, we couldn't afford to get somebody thrown out. Because then it's over for us.''
Rondo's leadership of the Celtics has taken many unexpected turns in recent years, but this was the least predictable of them all. Having been unable to energize them on the court, he would now inspire them by leaving. The Celtics would inch their advantage up to 72-61 when the third quarter ended and Rivers prepared to put Rondo back into play. By now Rivers had been told that Rondo's elbow had been popped back into place in the locker room. He was wearing a padded sleeve around his left elbow.
"When he came back,'' said West, "I said, 'Well, definitely have no excuse now [to not play].''
Rondo, who at 6-foot-1 and 186 pounds is the smallest player on either team, walked out of the huddle onto the floor and out past midcourt, facing the Heat bench as if he wanted to his rivals to see him. As if he was Clint Eastwood with a .44 Magnum hanging at his side. He spent the remainder of the quarter sprinting with his left arm straight down even as his right arm pistoned, like a modern-day version of John Havlicek, who in the 1973 postseason played left-handed after suffering a partial shoulder separation. Rondo rebounded and caught the ball and dribbled and threw passes one-handed. He picked up Chalmers full court defensively, and he tried to draw a charge from Wade that drove him flat onto his back. "Your elbow's messed up already, so what the hell,'' joked Rivers.
Rondo made one steal in particular that will be replayed throughout his career. He deflected a frontcourt pass from Chris Bosh (six points and five rebounds while limited by a pinched nerve in his neck) and when the ball came back he knifed past Bosh to intercept it and finish his breakaway with a soft right-handed dunk as his left arm hung limply.