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Rondo turns it up to beat the Heat

BOSTON -- Nearly all the signs on Wednesday night suggested that the Boston Celtics-Miami Heat rivalry was dead.

Start with a midweek, non-national-TV billing, sprinkle in Boston's overhauled roster and a loss-filled season. Heck, even LeBron James elected to snack on a McFlurry while resting his achy back rather than suit up at TD Garden.

Then Rajon Rondo hit the floor, glaring at everybody in a red uniform like a bull at a matador, and proceeded to take over the way he used to, as if the calendar said May instead of March.

Rondo came up a point shy of a triple-double while putting up nine points, 15 assists and 10 rebounds over 38 minutes, 47 seconds. Even while tip-toeing through foul trouble, he took over the game late, hitting a pair of runners over the final 104 seconds as Boston emerged with a 101-96 triumph that snapped a four-game losing streak.

Rondo was asked after what the win meant. "Nothing," he offered.

He was lying. These games always mean more. The rivalry has changed for sure, but when the Celtics put together their 2013-14 season DVD (probably not going to be a big seller), it'll be decorated with highlights from the three meetings between the Celtics and Heat -- but especially the bookend games that helped Boston steal the season series.

Jeff Green provided maybe the highlight of the campaign when he hit an impossible buzzer-beating 3-pointer over James during a November trip to Miami. Wednesday's win wasn't nearly as heart-stopping, but it was no less savored.

The Celtics could have lost their past 19 games of the season and few observers would have even blinked. Heck, many Celtics fans would have celebrated the additional pingpong balls generated by such a feat.

But Boston coaches and players are so darn competitive that most losses burn them like an ulcer. And in each of their past three outings, the Celtics had rallied from big deficits to give themselves a chance to win each game, only to watch a brief lapse in execution send them to defeat again.

So forgive Celtics coach Brad Stevens if he was looking for a bottle of Pepto to chug when Chris Andersen's wide-open putback dunk tied the game at 94 with 3:38 to play.

The Celtics, having rallied from as much as 14 down, had led by six just a couple of minutes earlier, but now the momentum was shifting. The team needed two offensive rebounds before Jeff Green hit a clutch 3-pointer with 2:33 to go, but Boston wasn't out of the woods.

Lucky for the Celtics, Rondo had seen enough. Clinging to that three-point cushion, the Celtics watched Chris Bosh miss a short jumper and Udonis Haslem looked like he was going to come away with the rebound. Instead, Rondo got his oversized mitts around the ball and managed to wrestle it from Haslem's hands, forcing a jump ball with 2:04 to play.

Despite giving up about 7 inches in height, Rondo was quicker to the ball and tapped it back to Green before asking for it right back. The Heat blitzed him on the right side, but he patiently waited for Haslem to retreat, and seeing old, umm, friend (?) Ray Allen shading him to the opposite side, Rondo attacked on the baseline and kissed a floater off the glass with 1:44 to go.

When Miami missed a chance to tie the game with less than a minute to play, Rondo grabbed his 10th rebound and dribbled down the shot clock before attacking on the baseline again, this time getting an 8-foot floater to drip into the net before Chris Bosh could scramble over to help.

A defiant Rondo, who entered the game shooting 13.8 percent on shots between 5 and 9 feet and cursed his lack of touch as he works his way back from ACL surgery, was asked about the two floaters after the win.

"It's about time," he said. "It's about time some of my floaters finally dropped."

Go ahead and put an asterisk on this one because James didn't play. Or lament the victory because it caused Boston to actually vault a bit in the standings (the Celtics, who previously owned the fourth-worst record in basketball, are now tied with their other rivals, the Lakers, for the fifth-worst mark overall).

But the Celtics wanted this one. Rondo wanted it. And things kinda felt like old times with the Garden rocking throughout the second half and roaring to Rondo's late-game exploits.

C'mon, admit it, Rondo. This one had to feel good.

"It was a good win," he submitted. "We needed a win. We needed to play better at home. And we did that tonight."

And you did it against the Heat, keeping this rivalry flickering a tiny bit as the Celtics try to get back to a place where they're routinely competitive against all the top teams in the league.