BOSTON -- There have been many nights when Rajon Rondo has taken command artistically and turned a playoff game into a kind of concert, in which he, as a conductor, roams the stage from end to end. But this was not that kind of night. He was struggling with his game, his teammates and his own frustrations.
Ray Allen, like his Celtic teammates who had gone 0-for-9 from three-point range, couldn't hit a three for most of the night. Kevin Garnett was superior defensively, but failed to establish himself in the post. Then Paul Pierce, their go-to scorer, fouled out with 4:16 remaining, leaving his teammates with nothing more than a 71-68 lead to be protected, and the end of their era to be feared.
Rondo took that three-point lead and turned it into an 85-75 victory over the 76ers in Game 7 that drove him and his Celtics to the Eastern Conference finals against Miami. Rondo finished with 18 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists (to go with seven frustrating turnovers) for his third triple-double of this postseason. By the time he was done, he and his fellow starters had all scored in double-figures.
The Heat will be favored in the next round, based on their advantages of youth, depth and health. But they will also be wary of how Rondo continues to expand his game and thereby expand the hopes of his gasping but resilient team. After Pierce fouled out, Rondo personally outscored Philadelphia 9-2, and he did it with jump shots.
Yes, jump shots.
These were not midrange jumpers, and they were made by a guard who has shot 24.1 percent from the three-point line across six regular seasons. After finishing a layup while driving under a Garnett screen (73-68), Rondo swished a jumper at the end of the shot clock that looked like a three before a video review ruled it a two-pointer (75-68). Then, as if to avoid further scrutiny, he stepped into a shovel pass from Brandon Bass to launch a three from at least a yard behind the arc (78-68). The shot may have been atypical, but its audacity was routine for Rondo.
"I felt I was part of the reason he fouled out," said Rondo of Pierce. "I had two bad turnovers, I felt somewhat responsible for it. My night wasn't going well all night, I just figured stay with it, stay positive and something will happen."
Then Rondo, a horrid 58.5 percent free-throw shooter over the last two regular seasons who has been accused of avoiding fouls in order to save himself the embarrassment, swished four straight free throws under the worst kind of pressure. Rondo, who had not scored in the previous eight minutes of the final quarter, would amass 11 points in the concluding four minutes to provide the kind of fluid and commanding spurt that his Hall-of-Fame-to-be teammates had been unable to manage. Best of all, he did it by turning his weakness -- shooting -- into a strength when his team needed it most.
Throughout this postseason, fans of the Big Three have been fearing the end that seemed to be on the verge throughout this seventh game. Garnett and Allen are going to be 36-year-old free agents when these playoffs are done, and who knows whether the Celtics will sign one or both or neither -- or whether they'll trade Pierce as well. Even Rondo has long been rumored to be available, whether for Chris Paul or other assets. But now all of that angst has been postponed from May until at least June.
Boston coach Doc Rivers hasn't been talking about the era or its end. Instead he's been reminding his players that the final championship team of Bill Russell wasn't supposed to win for the 11th time in 13 years. He knows that it will be easy to give Boston no chance of beating the Heat after the Celtics needed six games and 47 minutes of a seventh in order to beat the eighth-seeded Sixers, who don't have any star to rival LeBron James or Dwyane Wade. So Rivers had his staff put together a highlights package dubbed with Red Auerbach's voice. "I guess the '69 team, they talked about them not making it and being old," said Rivers, always looking for inspirational perspective.
Rivers has done his most important work with Rondo, who so often makes the game look easier than it ought to be. On the nights when he struggles to create, as he did in a Game 6 loss at Philadelphia and then for more than three quarters of Game 7, he tends to be hard on himself and everyone else. In the first half there was a bounce pass on the break that spun out of Brandon Bass' fingertips as Rondo turned away at midcourt, angry with the world. As the Sixers shot free throws moments later, Rondo stood far away, hands on his knees, his head down. Allen came over to pick him up, and then on his way to the bench for a timeout, he was stopped by Rivers. It was one of many conversations they would have in which Rivers urged him to be upbeat while also providing him with the kind of technical advice that Rondo craves.
"He's mad at Bass too, but he's mad at himself," said Rivers. "I told him, 'Tough pass for (Bass) to handle, he struggles with the bounce pass.' And Rondo's like, 'He can catch that.' And I said, 'No, he can't.'
"'He can catch that!' -- that's Rondo," continued Rivers by recollection. "'I said, `OK, he can catch that. But you've got to keep it going.' The one time you could see him on the bench, he had his head down, he was fighting it. And he just came out, he was ready to play again. It's just great to see."
Rivers was describing a young player who is learning to control his moods. It is an endless battle for everyone vested in the Celtics and Rondo, and it is also a small price to pay for all that he provides. Without him -- and there is no replacing him because no one in the NBA is like him -- the Celtics would have been out of contention and dismantled years ago. In order to make the most of him, Rivers asked him twice to draw up plays during timeouts in order to give his teammates a second look when Rivers arrived to show it to them again. "You could see everybody was already there," said Rivers, making a joke of his players' occasional difficulty to understand the plays, "and with some of our guys that's very important. That's how good he is with stuff. He can draw it up just like I can draw it up."
Most players can't turn their knowledge of basketball into the art of drawing plays, but Rondo has a natural ear for that kind of music. When Allen was in the midst of a 1-for-10 start from the field in which he missed all five of his threes, Rivers benched him after he passed away successive shots. "He was wide-open and passed up the shot, and when we took him out I went over to him and said, 'Hey, listen, we're not going to have that,'" said Rivers. Because the Celtics need Allen to shoot, whether he's making them or not, in order to space the floor and force the defense to respect his ever-present threat. "And he just said, 'My foot's killing me. I need a break. I'm good.' And I told him again, I said, 'Ray, listen, you don't ever pass up shots.' The biggest part was Rondo went over there and told him the same thing, which I thought was great for Ray to hear, confidence-wise.''
Then Garnett in turn made the same point. In the fourth quarter Allen made a pair of threes that renewed his confidence and incited the crowd. Then, over the crucial minutes ahead, it would turn out that he was serving as a bridge to Rondo's breakout performance as a long-distance shooter. When Andre Iguodala ran downcourt grinning slyly after he bombed a three of his own to bring the Sixers within 71-68 with 4:30 remaining, he had no idea what he was up against. No one did, because Rondo had never done what he was about to do. It should be enough to make the Heat stop and wonder what Rondo might yet do to them.