For the fifth time this season, the Boston Celtics find themselves as a Sunday afternoon national television attraction.
Or, as they might call it in Boston -- Rondo Time.
If the Celtics' matchup against the Miami Heat is to be anything like the team's other four national television games, it behooves LeBron James & Co. to pay special attention to one Mr. Rajon Pierre Rondo. That is no April Fools' joke.
The Celtics point guard has been a certifiable menace when the brightest lights tend to shine, which they will be doing at TD Garden for the Heat's first visit of the season. Miami might have the Big Three. The Celtics have Rondo, along with a rejuvenated Kevin Garnett, a four-game winning streak, a division lead for the first time this season and a 14-5 mark since the All-Star break. In fact, their .737 win percentage since the All-Star break is the second-best in the NBA (trailing only the Bulls' .833 mark).
Rondo is already on a personal-best assists roll, having dished out 10 or more dimes in 12 consecutive games. In two of those 12 games, he has had 17 assists, including in Friday night's 21-point thumping of the Timberwolves. He had 16 in another. He's averaging 14.1 assists in his past 10 games and 12.4 in the past 19 games.
Rondo dished out 219 assists in March, shattering Bob Cousy's team record for assists in a calendar month. Cousy, who held the team record for 56 years, had 210 assists in January 1956.
But Rondo usually does a lot more than dish on Sunday afternoon when the cameras are rolling. Take a look at his three previous games on ABC this season and you will see some jaw-dropping numbers:
Feb. 12 vs. Chicago: Thirty-two points, 15 assists and 10 rebounds in a 95-91 victory over the Bulls. It remains Boston's only win against Chicago this season.
March 4 vs. New York: Arguably, Rondo's single greatest regular-season performance evah!!! He had 18 points, 20 assists and 17 rebounds in a 115-111 overtime victory. No one had put up those kinds of a numbers in a game since Magic Johnson. This tour de force came 11 days before the trading deadline, with Rondo's name having surfaced (again) in rumors. It also came at the height of Linsanity, another motivating factor for Rondo. And it came against the Knicks, who were trying to overtake the Celtics in the standings. "This game had enough juice on it to be the kind he's interested in," said Garnett, who made sure he had a copy of the final box score, "to prove I was a witness."
March 11 at LA Lakers: Twenty-four points, 10 assists, 2 rebounds in a 97-94 loss at the Staples Center.
Add in a 31-point, 13-assist, 5-rebound, 5-steal submission on Christmas Day (Sunday afternoon on TNT) in the league opener after the lockout and you get the picture. The bigger the stage, the larger the perceived slight, the greater attention focused on his opponent, Rondo invariably rises to the occasion. Of his 17 career triple-doubles, including the playoffs, 13 of them have been on national television.
So the presence of Miami (and the ABC cameras) should be all Rondo needs Sunday.
The Heat are 10-0 against the Atlantic Division following their 113-101 victory at Toronto on Friday night, but only 1-0 against the Celtics. The teams last met Dec. 27 in the second game of the season for each. Miami won 115-107, with Rondo going for 22 points, 12 assists and 8 rebounds. (He also had 7 turnovers.)
Paul Pierce missed that game with a sore heel. The Big Three of Miami combined for 68 points, but it was rookie Norris Cole's 20 points that proved to be the killer. By the way, that is still his season high. (He also had 20 on Feb. 14 against the Pacers.) Avery Bradley played four minutes in the game and looked utterly clueless. Times, as they say, have changed.
Miami also added some beef on its front line with the signing of Ronny Turiaf. James is on track for another MVP while en route to establishing personal highs in field goal percentage, 3-point percentage and rebounds. Fifteen of the Heat's past 19 victories have come by 10 or more points. But they are only 16-11 on the road and had dropped two straight away from Miami before their victory over Toronto.
The Celtics will hope to have Ray Allen back. He has missed the previous five games with a sore right ankle. He had hoped to play Friday night in Minnesota, but the ankle was still sore. The Celtics are 4-1 in the five games Allen has missed with his current ailment, as Bradley has played well in his absence, focusing on defense and getting easy baskets on Rondo passes and open-look jumpers.
Sunday's game opens a grueling final stretch for the Celtics. There are three games with Miami in the space of 24 days and two games with Atlanta in the space of nine days. There is a back-to-back this week with the Spurs at home and the Bulls on the road. There is a big Easter evening matchup with the Sixers and, of course, there is the dreaded back-to-back-to-back with roadies in Toronto, New Jersey and Charlotte.
Doc Rivers might resort to reading "The Waste Land" before it's all over, for April could, indeed, be the cruelest of months for his team. It all begins Sunday in the national spotlight on their home floor against what may be the league's marquee team in terms of sheer star power.
That sounds like plenty of "juice" to get Rondo rolling. Can he take the team along for the ride?