Rajon Rondo shrugged off a quiet first half by scoring 14 of his 16 points in the third quarter as the Celtics leaned heavy on their 24-year-old point guard while building a comfortable cushion that carried Boston to a 96-86 triumph over the 76ers Friday at the Wachovia Center.
On a night in which Paul Pierce simply didn't have it (1-of-9 shooting, 7 points in 32 minutes) and Ray Allen disappeared after a fast start, Rondo took over the game with Boston's starters seemingly waiting for someone to make something happen.
When Rondo realized the 76ers couldn't stop him driving to the basket, he fearlessly attacked out of the pick-and-roll and wound up generating more than half of Boston's 28-point output in the third frame.
His finest work came midway through the quarter. After Philadelphia rallied to tie the game at 54, Rondo responded with Boston's next three field goals over a 71-second span, giving the Celtics an advantage they wouldn't relinquish.
Rondo attacked the basket, and when he wasn't spinning in reverse layups with the 76ers' defense chasing, he was landing at the charity stripe, where he connected on four of six free throws (a quality night for someone shooting 60.3 percent at the line this season).
"That is what [Rondo] does," sighed Philadelphia coach Eddie Jordan. "We tried to get a hold on him and put some pressure on him -- trap him -- [then] we tried to lay off him and force him to make jump shots. He is just a terrific player. He gets to where he wants to go and finishes the play, or dimes it or lays it off for someone else to finish."
Rondo called his own number much of the third frame. Coming off picks at the top of the key, the 76ers couldn't stop Rondo from racing to the rim and ultimately settled for fouling him, trying to at least make him earn the baskets at the stripe.
Even still, he found ways to put the ball in the cylinder. His runner in the paint with three seconds to go in the third quarter put Boston on top by seven -- its largest lead to that point.
"With the pick-and-roll, we just couldn't get the ball stopped, and then [Rondo] broke us down," said Andre Iguodala. "Like I said, the offense had the defense at their mercy. … I think that Rondo got four or five drives to the basket and then two foul shots consecutively. I think we never really adjusted to make that stop, and they found a weakness and kept going to it."
Despite a fast start for Allen, Boston's starters labored late in the first half and the team leaned on its bench to produce a three-point halftime advantage.
The Celtics still looked stagnant in the second half before Rondo took over. Desperate for a spark, Rondo attacked over and over until Philadelphia stopped him, which didn't happen until the fourth quarter.
"[Rondo] was huge," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "We were looking for something, we just didn't have anything going offensively. I think we ran two plays, basically. Rondo was fantastic."
Rondo finished with 16 points on 6-of-12 shooting with 11 assists, 6 rebounds, and 2 steals over 41 minutes. On a night in which he struggled for the majority of three quarters, he still produced his 31st double-double of the season, and nearly a triple-double.
More than anything, Rondo pretty much single-handedly kept this game from slipping away, something that happened when Philadelphia rallied to a 98-97 win in Boston on Dec. 18, snapping the Celtics' 11-game winning streak and essentially sending them into the funk that they might just now be pulling out of .
"I think the sense of urgency is there the last few games," said Pierce. "I really like our spirit. I think that has been our key from start to finish. Our spirit and our energy has been, and we are starting to get it together."
Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.