- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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BOSTON -- The point guard epitomized the very game itself -- sloppy and brilliant and gritty and careless and frenetic all at the same time.
Rajon Rondo returned, all right. His fingerprints were all over the Boston Celtics' 90-84 overtime win over the Atlanta Hawks that gave Boston a well-earned 2-1 lead in the teams' Eastern Conference first-round series.
With every intent eye of the partisan green crowd at the Garden fixated on No. 9, Rondo submitted a performance that was maddeningly uneven -- yet ultimately satisfying. He missed a sackful of layups, threw the ball around the parquet like he and his boys were playing "wonder ball" and was subjected to a few humbling defensive moments at the hands of Atlanta upstart Jeff Teague, who proved he's quite capable of coming up big in Atlanta or in the city where his father once starred at Boston University.
Yet when it counted, Rondo emerged from the uneven tenor of the game and made the right play, the right pass, the right cut, the right call.
In his first outing since he bumped referee Marc Davis and drew a one-game suspension, Rondo wasted absolutely no time in announcing his return. He surveyed the landscape for a moment, then put his head down and drove to the basket. He forced the play, for sure, and the layup didn't go down, but any suggestions that the stubborn young leader planned to wait for the game to come to him were almost immediately moot.
The message? I'm back. I'm back and I don't want to hear any more about how I let down my team or how I wasn't contrite enough for the paying public. I'm here and I'm going to put my imprint on this series, and this game, for better or for worse.
"Certainly, he's a handful," Hawks coach Larry Drew conceded after Rondo dropped 17 points, 14 rebounds and 12 assists on his team. The triple-double numbers indeed were gaudy, but there were additional gaudy statistics that fell into the negative ledger: 6 turnovers and 7-for-22 shooting.
That's right. Twenty-two shots for Rondo.
"Really?" Paul Pierce said incredulously. "That many? Usually it's me that's taking 22 shots."
Precisely. In Game 2, with Rondo and Ray Allen (bone spurs in his ankle) watching in street clothes, Pierce took the Celtics offense hostage and poured in 36 points on 26 attempts. Atlanta reviewed the film and made a concerted effort to make sure that didn't happen again.
After running through Boston's sets, the Hawks determined, just as other teams have before them, to dare Rondo to shoot.
"That's our game plan, to make Rondo take contested jump shots," Hawks reserve Willie Green confirmed. "We don't like him getting into the lane and passing out to guys for easy shots by drawing our defense in.
"We did a good job forcing him into shooting 7-for-22, but the problem is he does so many other things on the basketball floor."
Sometimes, the things Rondo does make you cringe -- like forcing passes into traffic, or whirling and spinning and juking to nowhere. One minute, his suffocating defensive pressure is precisely the kind of effort that makes him one of the game's great agitators. The next he's gambling and scrambling, implementing a kamikaze approach that leaves a shooter open or a big man untouched.
In the first half, Rondo took and missed three shots, coughed up the ball five times and appeared to be wilting under the weighty pressure of his post-suspension appearance. At the time, his team held a tenuous 40-38 advantage.
"I told him, 'You just be Rondo,"' teammate Mickael Pietrus said. "Just do what you do. Be that guy who runs around out there getting us shots."
"When you come back," Doc Rivers explained, "you do one of two things: You either do too much or you try to stay out of the way. And you have a point guard, you really don't want him to stay out of the way. You want him to run the show."
At the eight-minute mark of the third quarter, Rondo did precisely that. He began attacking the glass. He pushed the tempo, drove to the middle, then dropped a no-look pass to Brandon Bass, who was so startled to be part of the offense, he bobbled the ball before coaxing it in.
The next Boston basket was a textbook lob from Rondo to Kevin Garnett in transition. Then Rondo stripped Teague in the open floor, found Avery Bradley streaking down the court and set him up to slam it home.
His backcourt partner-in-crime botched the dunk, but Rondo chased down the rebound and cleaned it up with a nifty reverse lay-in. Just like that, the Celtics were up six and the Hawks were calling time.
"It started with the defense and getting stops," Rondo said. "That allowed us to run on the fast break. The floor opened up, guys were trailing in for jump shots, I was able to attack the paint and KG was sealing it."
Rondo's creative exclamation point was delivered with 8:50 left in regulation, when he juked past Jannero Pargo, spun 360 degrees and as soon as the Hawks brought help in the form of Tracy McGrady, dished it to Pierce in the corner for 3.
"Usually when I penetrate, Paul and Ray sink to the corners," Rondo explained. "That's just a matter of guys playing together for a long time. I know where they are going to be and they know where I'm going to be."
Rondo logged a game-high 48:40 in Game 3. Pierce played 47 minutes, Garnett played 42 and Allen, who was a game-time decision as to whether he'd play at all, contributed almost 37. Asked in the immediate aftermath of the victory how he felt, Allen confessed, "My foot feels like it's on fire."
Allen's presence certainly helped with Boston's spacing. It enabled Rondo to target multiple offensive weapons and also to find some daylight himself in the paint. Allen's effort was exceptional; after missing his team's past 11 games, he contributed 13 points and 6 boards.
KG also was a presence with 20 points, 13 rebounds and 4 blocks, and even though Pierce was a woeful 3-for-12 from the floor, when you looked up after the game, he had his usual 21 points and 5 boards.
It wasn't all about Rondo, yet somehow he's the one you walked away thinking about.
He can expect to have opportunities to take more jump shots in Game 4. Atlanta's strategy, said Johnson and Green, likely won't change.
It is generally not a positive development for the Celtics when Rondo leads the team in shot attempts.
"If that happens, it means we've successfully kept the ball away from the other guys," Green reasoned.
Rondo did not respond to that notion. He didn't have to. You already know what he's thinking: Bring it on. I'm back. I'm ready.
And this is my team.
You can't take your eyes off the talented, mercurial, frenetic Rajon Rondo.