- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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BOSTON -- I give up.
I'm done trying to discern what goes on inside the talented, brilliant, stubborn, mercurial mind of Rajon Rondo.
How can he be so utterly disengaged from a series-deciding Game 7 one minute, then seize complete control of the game and throttle the life out of the Philadelphia 76ers the next?
I've got news for you: His teammates (and, quite likely, his devoted fans) do not care. The best player on the Boston Celtics demonstrated his spectacular value again Saturday night in the final minutes of yet another game that teetered on the brink of (offensive) disaster.
With his team's season -- and, perhaps, the viability of the Big Four -- hanging in the balance, Rondo reeled off seven straight points in the final three and a half minutes, including a steely deep jumper with the shot clock dwindling down to its final second that transformed a tenuous 3-point Boston advantage into a roundhouse knockout punch.
Thus, the Celtics advance to take on the heavily favored Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals after a challenging 85-75 victory in Game 7.
Rondo managed to eke out his ninth career playoff triple-double (18 points, 10 assists, 10 rebounds) as well as carve out his own place in Celtics postseason history despite finding himself mired in an in-game funk that left his teammates and coach imploring him to shake off the self-doubt and stake his claim in the game's outcome.
"He gets so down on him himself,'' Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "We have this saying that came from (the late coach) Chuck Daly, 'Get past the mad.'
"We say it all the time, and now our players say it to each other. Rondo made a couple of turnovers, and you can see his head go down. And on the bench you can hear our guys say, 'Come on now, let's get past it.'
"He's so hard on himself. We had this funny exchange once about that. He said, 'Coach, I'm not mad at anybody; I'm mad at myself.' And I said, 'I don't care who you are mad at; you're still mad. And we need you. We need your positive energy.'"
Although the Celtics led nearly wire to wire, they were staggering toward the finish line without verve, momentum or rhythm, in part because their point guard was struggling to put his imprint on the game. Rondo may have hit those final three clutch shots, but before that he was 3-for-10 from the floor with seven turnovers.
Paul Pierce compounded Boston's offensive woes by being relegated to the role of spectator after picking up his sixth personal on an offensive foul call with 4:16 to play.
"We thought we had a great chance to win,'' Sixers coach Doug Collins said of his team's thoughts after Pierce fouled out.
Of course they did. Boston's desired focal point, Kevin Garnett, had missed 10 of his 17 shots. The efforts of Ray Allen, the most prolific 3-point shooter in NBA history, appeared so utterly futile at times, you found yourself wishing Rivers would put him out of his misery and yank him from the game. Sugar Ray ultimately delivered a pair of daggers at critical moments (more on that later), but, as Rivers correctly noted, "We were kind of down to Rondo and Kevin in pick-and-roll down the stretch.''
It was 71-68 when Pierce lowered his shoulder, plowed into Thaddeus Young, and shouted in disbelief when official Monty McCutchen blew the whistle to end his night. Moments earlier Pierce had coaxed in a one-handed bank shot and appeared to have a little something going.
"I felt I was part of the reason he fouled out,'' Rondo revealed. "I had two bad turnovers. I felt somewhat responsible for it. My night wasn't going well.''
That was about to change. First, Rondo's pressure helped force a Philly turnover. Then, he penetrated the paint and finished off a layup insead of watching it roll off, which happened earlier in the game.
Rondo thrives when he attacks the basket, and teams have dared him to shoot from the perimeter since he came into the league. When he proceeded to knock down two of the biggest shots of his professional career from 20 feet (and beyond) Saturday night, the blow was too much for Philadelphia to withstand.
What the Sixers won't tell you publicly is if they could do it over again, they would play it the same way. They would take their chances allowing Rondo to drill a pair of bombs with the shot clock winding down. Their defense on both of those possessions was solid down to the final ticks. In this game you play the percentages, and Philly had reason to like the odds of Rondo attempting a pressure trey. His regular-season totals, after all, put him at 23.8 percent.
Asked what was going through his mind when he saw Rondo launch the two long jumpers, Sixers point guard Jrue Holiday said, "You know, you're thinking a miss.''
Collins lauded Rondo as "the guy who has become the motor that drives his team.'' Collins is right, only sometimes Rondo drives his team absolutely crazy.
He is still a work in progress, still a player whose leadership is evolving. It hasn't been easy learning to establish his voice in the shadows of three first-ballot Hall of Famers. At alternate times, Rondo has craved, then rejected their advice. He has tried to emulate them, then has turned around and ignored them. He is the little brother trying to establish his pecking order in the family.
Rivers has spent countless hours impressing upon Rondo that consistency, above all, is what separates great players from elite players.
Knocking down clutch shots in the final minutes of a Game 7 is a step in the right direction.
Rondo acknowledged his shifting emotions throughout the course of a game. Part of it, he said, comes from wanting to be the best.
"I get frustrated,'' he conceded. "You know, I'm the leader, I'm the point guard. I take pride in taking care of the ball. I just try to be great every night.''
He wasn't great for all of Game 7, but hey, in that regard he had plenty of company. Allen was a horrific 1-of-9 from the floor before he finally connected on two huge 3-pointers in the final quarter. Pierce had a quiet seven points at halftime (on 2-of-6 shooting), and KG, by Rivers' admission, was knocked a "little off balance'' by Philadelphia's defensive schemes. This game, like the others before it in this series, was hard to watch for long, long stretches.
Yet what has always galvanized this group of Celtics has been defense. After being thoroughly outplayed on both ends of the floor by Holiday in Game 6, Rondo harassed Holiday into a 5-of-17 shooting night in Game 7.
Rondo's self-inflicted emotional wounds are an ongoing storyline for the Celtics. He is his own worst enemy, and, at times, his own biggest fan. Who knows what spurs Rondo on? Who can possibly understand how his considerable abilities wax and wane the way they do?
"I thought he fought himself tonight and won,'' his coach said. "That's a big step.''
Sure it is. Just don't ask me to explain it.
Was there ever a doubt Rajon Rondo would spark the Celtics? Well ...