Friday, April 22, 2011
Rondo's reappearance act
By Jackie MacMullan
NEW YORK -- Raise your hand if you've seen enough.
Me, too. Bring on the Heat.
There were moments when you might have been able to make a case for a compelling Celtics-Knicks series, but that was before Chauncey Billups crumpled in a heap on the Boston Garden parquet, before Amare Stoudemire's balky back left him so ineffective he felt compelled to roll up his warm-up jersey to reveal his back brace for public consumption, before Rajon Rondo unleashed a vintage Game 3 performance that harkened back to those early days in November and December when the Celtics appeared unbeatable and their point guard was lauded as otherworldly.
During those heady times, Boston was basketball poetry in motion, a fluid, selfless offensive juggernaut that moved the ball with steely precision, orchestrated by its unorthodox maestro.
For months now, we've wondered where all that ball movement went. Rondo was in a funk, and the theories were endless -- did his foot hurt? His finger? Were his feelings bruised over the departure of running mate Kendrick Perkins? Had teams figured out how to neutralize him by daring him to shoot? Had excessive, hard-fought minutes with numerous hard landings caught up with him? Was it none of the above or, closer to the truth, all of the above?
It didn't matter. The point guard needed to put it all behind him and, as his coach kept imploring him to do, "keep it simple."
The game is easy when it's played the right way. In 40 minutes of play Friday night, Rondo established a rhythm predicated on sharing the ball and keeping it moving. He engaged Paul Pierce (a game-high 38 points) and Ray Allen (32 points) early and often. He led his team on a crushing 22-5 run to open the game, reducing an initially raucous Madison Square Garden crowd to a truly disheartened collection of malcontents who, by the end, could muster only barely audible groans.
"It's a beautiful thing watching a team like this share the ball,'' Celtics newbie Jeff Green said. "When you have a point guard as talented as Rondo, he makes it look easy.''
What it also does is expose a Knicks team that isn't good enough, deep enough or healthy enough to hang with the boys in green.
Rondo checked out with 15 points, 11 boards and 20 assists. Twenty assists. It's been a while since the numbers were that gaudy.
Somewhere during the final week before the "second season" began, the point guard rediscovered his verve. He began challenging defenses by driving to the hoop again. He reasserted himself on the defensive end. He took back responsibility for making this team work.
That's why it's over. The Celtics always play inspired defense, but now that they're regaining their offensive touch, they are no match for an incomplete basketball team. The "reloaded" Knicks still can't defend, still rely too much on their superstars and don't have enough veteran leadership to absorb crippling injuries to two of their most seasoned players.
Willis Reed isn't limping through that door, and the Celtics, up 3-0 in this best-of-seven series after the thorough 113-96 beating of the Knicks in Game 3, have only one pressing matter left to address: finish it off Sunday.
"That's our plan," Glen Davis said. "To come in like we did in this game. We want to finish this."
Celtics coach Doc Rivers likened Rondo's triple double -- which included a smattering of confident perimeter jumpers, some nifty penetration moves AND 5-of-6 shooting from the free throw line -- to a great "catcher game, a [Jason] Varitek game."
When the ball is moving, the assist totals (31 for Boston, 18 for New York) are up, the spacing improves and there are more second-chance opportunities. The Celtics corralled 13 offensive boards for 22 points, a category they rarely dominate in games.
There are still plenty of things this Boston team needs to work on (including a bigger contribution from the bench), but it's hard to imagine the suddenly impotent Knicks recovering from this thrashing. Their starters scored a grand total of 19 points -- and 12 of them were from Carmelo Anthony. Stoudemire was a woeful 2-for-8 from the floor and looked to be in agony for much of the night. He conceded he won't be 100 percent again anytime soon.
"I was very ginger," he said. "I didn't really want to draw any contact."
New Yorkers waited seven years for their Knickerbockers to return to The Garden (no Madison Square required in these parts) to soak up some playoff glory. It was as if they had taken out a smartly pressed tuxedo, lovingly preserved for this one special moment, and popped a button before it was off the hanger.
Add a squirt of mustard and a deep Burgandy wine stain on the sleeve, and you have a visual of how truly messy the Knicks' "coming out" party became.
Proud New Yorkers will tell you this series might have been different if Billups could have played or if Stoudemire exhibited some measure of mobility or comfort. That is true.
It's also irrelevant.
The playoffs are all about survival. The NBA's motto is Win or Go Home. Nobody cares about injuries, back braces, gripes about officiating. It's grinding out W's, one grisly game at a time.
The Celtics have three of the four victories they need. They are showing signs of coming together at precisely the right moment, just as they have each season since the Big Three banded together in search of championship rings.
"This team has a sense of urgency," Pierce declared.
There appears to be no such urgency on the part of Anthony (4-for-6) and his remaining teammates -- just a dispirited group of players who are realizing the days to their season are winding down.
Time to take that tuxedo to the dry cleaners and put it back in plastic.
Hey, there's always next year.
|For months we wondered where the otherworldly Rajon Rondo had gone. Well, he's back.
Jackie MacMullan, who has spent nearly 20 years as a beat writer and columnist in Boston, is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.