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Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo puts up a shot against the Heat.BOSTON -- Less than a minute into the Celtics' 101-91 Game 3 victory over the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals, Rajon Rondo sprinted up the floor and collided with LeBron James at the free-throw line.
Whistle, foul on James.
Rondo, perhaps still somewhat bitter over what he deemed a lack of a foul call on an overtime drive during Boston's Game 2 loss in Miami, made a point with that opening play, establishing a tone and a pace for his teammates to follow. He did the same thing in Game 2, by way of his career-high 44 points, but Friday saw a different kind of leadership from Rondo -- one not predicated solely on putting the ball in the basket, but based on weaving a fine balance of personal production and teammate involvement, impacting the box score in whichever way his team needed it the most.
"[It's] like a pitcher throwing a no-hitter, you stay away from that joker," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said after Rondo finished Game 3 with 21 points (9-of-16 shooting), six rebounds, 10 assists, a steal and just two turnovers in 43 minutes. "The guy scored 44 points, what can I possibly tell him? I didn't tell him a word. I was asked a lot. I told him to keep running the team. Keep running the team. The only thing we told him offensively was he had to get Kevin involved. Other than that, just go play."
Rivers certainly got what he wanted from Garnett, who scored a team-high 24 points on 10-of-16 shooting, doing most of his damage inside for a change. But he needed someone to get him the ball in the paint against smaller defenders like Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony, which is where Rondo stepped in, consistently feeding him over-the-top passes that left his defender behind him and a wide-open look at the hoop in front of him. The result was often a basket or a trip to the free-throw line.
"[Garnett] kept preaching just throw it up to him," Rondo said. "They went small. Nobody can jump as high as Kevin. LeBron [James] is athletic, or Haslem, but they can't get to the ball. They switched a little bit. He stood up to the rim and got most of them."
Added Keyon Dooling: "It's a very tough pass. Rondo makes things that are difficult look routine, he makes it look easy. But to be able to throw it over guys 6-foot-9-inches, incredible wing spans, to put the right amount of air up under it to lay it right perfectly in KG's hands is very tough."
But Rondo's determination to bring about a different ending than that of Games 1 and 2 was clear through his own actions as well. He motored up and down the court, intercepting passes, hurtling himself toward the rim, earning trips to the free-throw line where he was met with thunderous chants of "M-V-P" by the TD Garden crowd. He even posted up Anthony, who has 8 inches of height on him, and nearly put in a spinning layup.
Through it all he never glued himself to one form of production. Even though he was getting to the rim at will, he stopped and fed Marquis Daniels when the sparsely used forward checked in and began making an impact. He could have, as the second quarter came to a close, cut along the left baseline and forced a layup, but he instead flipped the ball back beyond the 3-point line to Ray Allen, who obliged by knocking down his second triple of the game.
"My goal was to win. By any means necessary," Rondo said. "We needed to get the win. I just wanted to sacrifice and do the things for my teammates to get the lead, keep the lead and just run the show. My job is to be the leader out there on the floor. The extension of Doc. I wanted to call a great game, keep my turnovers down and keep guys happy."
Not Miami's guys, of course. The Heat, who trailed by 22 (85-63) heading into the final frame, consistently chipped away at Boston's edge, bringing it down to 19, eventually 15, and still lower, as the Celtics' offense sputtered at the worst possible time. But there was Rondo, who contributed eight points in the final frame, exactly half of Boston's total as a team. After a Mike Miller 3-pointer cut Miami's deficit to 12 with 7:43 to play, Rondo drove the lane and tossed a floater in off the glass, pushing the lead back to 14.
He stopped Miami's momentum again with just over four minutes left by charging full court, bulling into Shane Battier, and throwing in a tough floater off the glass while drawing the foul. The Heat kept coming, though, and as they trailed by just eight with under two minutes to play, Rondo forced the lead back up to double digits by speeding the length of the floor, finding an opening in Miami's scrambling transition defense, and launching up to unleash a light finger roll at the rim, extinguishing Miami's rallying fire.
"He's been timely in the scoring category all playoffs," Dooling said of Rondo. "He's had some big fourth quarters. Obviously, we ask him to do a lot. He has to facilitate, make sure everybody gets involved. We expect him to score points, we expect him to rebound, we expect him to be a masterful play caller, we expect a lot from him. But that's what happens when you pursue greatness."
Greatness, indeed. Not in the form of 44 points, but in the mold of a complete and well-balanced effort, which propelled Boston back into this series.