1. With Rondo Dealing, Is Anything Possible?
BOSTON -- The official ledger will imply that the Miami Heat vanquished the Boston Celtics by a 4-1 count in last year's playoffs, the final nails coming from LeBron James in a furious Game 5 performance that literally brought him to his knees with emotion.
The hypotheticals, though, could go on for years. What would've happened if Rajon Rondo had not landed awkwardly after a tussle with Dwyane Wade and dislocated his elbow late in Game 3, essentially crippling him for the rest of the series?
Perhaps the Heat would still have won. Perhaps Rondo, who guided that Game 3 victory before his right arm jackknifed the wrong direction, was just getting started. Maybe a couple times in hypothetical Games 4 through 7 Rondo could've looked something like Sunday, when he tore through the Heat's weaknesses for another fabulous game in Boston's 91-72 win.
Sure, it's revisionist history but it's also a legitimate discussion.
Also legitimate discussions raised in the wake of this one: (1) Maybe the Celtics, kept together at the trade deadline after some wavering by the front office, do indeed have one more run left in them. (2) Are the Heat routinely getting blitzed by good teams on the road because they're just waiting for the playoffs and bored, inexplicable as that might be, or because even with their offseason additions they still have deep-rooted issues?
Rondo, treating Heat point guards Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole like they were chairs, was his herky-jerky best. He had 16 points, 12 rebounds and 13 assists in 37 minutes. It was his 18th career triple-double and 14 of them have come on national television.
That's one of those passive-aggressive stats that implies that Rondo doesn't play with the same intensity every night. Which was one of the core reasons the Celtics were talking trades -- OK, so they said they were just "taking" the calls -- involving Rondo for the past year. But here's a news flash: all playoff games will be on national television.
"I think my teammates put a spotlight on me more than the media," Rondo said in attempting to explain this phenomenon. "We're playing pretty good of late."
Indeed they are. The Celtics are now 15-5 since the All-Star break and have stormed past the Philadelphia 76ers for the Atlantic Division lead. That's no footnote, since it has taken them from the No. 7 seed to the No. 4 seed and opened up a more realistic scenario of making a postseason run. They've done it despite losing Jermaine O'Neal and Chris Wilcox for the season and Mickael Pietrus for an undetermined period. Also, Ray Allen has missed six games in a row with an ankle injury that just won't heal.
Boston is 5-0 since Avery Bradley replaced Allen in the starting lineup. On Sunday, it could be said that Bradley played Wade to a draw. Wade had 15 points but took 17 shots. Bradley had 13 points on 10 shots and battled Wade fiercely on defense, limiting his preferred post game.
When you factor in Kevin Garnett spiking Chris Bosh defensively (Bosh was 2-of-11 with four points) and that Paul Pierce played James even (both had 23 points and James had no assists for just the second time in 769 regular-season games) the Miami "big three" weren't so big.
Now add Rondo, who never drew James as a defender, and it's easy to total up what took place.
The Heat are a pedestrian 10-7 since the All-Star break and have been below average on the road. They've been smashed in marquee matchups in three of the past five Sundays. They got beat by the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center by 10, in Oklahoma City by 16 and now a 19-point beat down in Boston.
Miami has lost seven of 11 overall on the road, costing them playoff position and possibly adding more road games. Their pace of play, their greatest strength for the first half of the season, has slowed remarkably. It might've hit rock bottom Sunday. How else can it be explained that a team with three All-Stars could muster just 72 points?
Yet while Heat coach Erik Spoelstra continues to sound alarms -- "This game was unacceptable, we're not happy about it," he said -- the stars themselves continue to be somewhat matter-of-fact. Almost in unison.
"We're mentally tough, we'll figure it out," James said. "Do we have the answers right now? No."
"We'll figure it out," Wade said. "That's what a good team is supposed to do."
"We're going to figure it out," Bosh said. "We have to stay positive."
Their attitude may be buoyed by the fact that they've won 15 in a row at home and seven of the next eight games are in Miami. This week alone they get shots at Philadelphia, Oklahoma City and Memphis. Plenty of chances to get well.
The Celtics, on the other hand, have a brutal week ahead with San Antonio, Chicago, Indiana and Philadelphia on the slate. It's quite possible that when these two teams meet again in nine days in Miami the outlook will be reversed.
But that won't change the impression that Sunday left, which is that the Celtics are still dangerous and the Heat have a lot of problem-solving between them and that title they're supposed to win.
2. Around The Association
Recap | Box score
MVP: It's impossible to narrow this down to just one player. Kobe Bryant scored 40 points with 5 assists, Pau Gasol scored 26 to go with 11 rebounds and 6 assists, and Ramon Sessions chipped in 23 points with 9 assists. The Lakers trio was as entertaining as they were efficient and simply played fantastic ball to lead their team to the win.
X-Factor: Andrew Bynum went down with a first-quarter ankle sprain and didn't return for the remainder of the contest. This forced Troy Murphy into action, and after not playing in the last game (and only playing 13 minutes in the two games prior) he scored 8 points and had 11 rebounds in 27 minutes, greatly contributing to the Lakers' victory.
Defining Moment: After Richard Jefferson hit a 3-pointer to cut the Lakers' lead to 3 with 1:21 left in the game, Metta World Peace lined up a corner three pointer of his own and knocked it down to push his team's lead back to 6. Up to that point MWP had missed all three of his shots behind the arc but buried the one that the Warriors couldn't recover from.
Recap | Box score
MVP: LaMarcus Aldridge was the MVP. He had 26 points and 8 rebounds while winning a growing personal battle with Kevin Love. He went 5-for-6 in the third quarter for 10 of his points.
X factor: Raymond Felton had 10 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds. Jonny Flynn had seven assists off the bench. Apparently, disappointing point guards slicing up the Wolves' defense was the X Factor.
That Was ... awkwardly chippy: In the second quarter, Love and Aldridge got into a weird chest bump showdown. It was a buildup throughout the first half and eventually the two players sort of snapped without actually doing anything. But it seemed to fire up Aldridge enough.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Danny Granger. He hit 6-of-8 from 3-point range on his way to 32 points. And it was a good thing he did -- Indiana needed each and every one of those buckets to hold off a relentless effort from Houston that fell just short.
X factor: Darren Collison's missed free throws. The Pacers point guard made three separate trips to the line in the closing seconds of regulation and overtime. He went 1-for-2 each time to leave the door open for the Rockets to stay alive. For holding on to win, he owes a few Pacers dinner.
That was riveting: There was a true playoff-feel to this hectic, back-and-forth finish that featured several hard-to-believe moments. The teams traded big-time jumpers late in regulation then Houston exploited Indiana's missed free throws and careless turnovers to come just shy of stealing the game.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Take your pick. A lot of players played well for both teams. Between Ty Lawson (25 points, nine assists, five rebounds), Aaron Afflalo (22 points, five rebounds) and Jameer Nelson (27 points, five assists), there's no wrong answer.
X factor: Despite allowing the Nuggets to shoot 55.6 percent from the floor, the Magic were able to stay in this game by forcing 17 turnovers and snagging 18 offensive rebounds. Glen Davis alone had more offensive rebounds (9) than Denver (7).
That game was fun: Despite no Dwight Howard for Orlando (back spasms) and Denver missing a few rotation players due to a variety of injuries, this game still had high entertainment value. It was free-flowing and featured plenty of offense.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Andrea Bargnani, now presumably more comfortable starting at the 4 next to Aaron Gray, was as good as he needed to be against the second-worst team in the NBA. The Italian had a couple jumpers working off the dribble against the likes of Jan Vesely and Chris Singleton. The fact that Bargnani scored 18 points on 6-for-15 shooting and is being named MVP should tell you all you need to know about this game.
X factor: Amir Johnson and the Toronto bench. Johnson had a huge putback dunk with a minute left to put Toronto up 91-86; his hefty play combined with that of Ed Davis led to the Raptors' bench outscoring Washington's 40-20. Gary Forbes had just enough space to get some jumpers working, and scored nine points. Alan Anderson, on a 10-day contract, also scored nine points. Both players hit two free-throws each with less than 20 seconds left to seal the win for Toronto.
That was rough (picture in your mind Will Ferrell trying to impersonate a dog barking over and over again): Without Nene and Trevor Booker for the Wizards, one thought the recently progressive Raptors could win by more than seven points against Washington. The box score doesn't look the worst in the world for either team, but the contest really came down to what lottery team wanted to lose the game less.
Recap | Box score
MVP: The Suns outscored the Hornets by 25 with Jared Dudley on the floor, as JD chipped in a game-high 21 to help fill the void left by the injured Grant Hill.
Defining Moment: The Suns took control of the game with a 14-2 run early in the third and were never seriously threatened thereafter.
That Was ... Necessary: With Phoenix's final 13 games coming against West playoff contenders, the Suns could not afford another home loss to a lottery team. They took care of business to keep their slim playoff chances flickering.
3. Sunday's Best
Rajon Rondo, Celtics: Posted his NBA-leading fifth triple-double of the season in a 91-72 win over the Heat. Rondo finished with 16 points, 14 assists and 11 rebounds, reaching the triple-double mark with 8 1/2 minutes to play.
4. Sunday's Worst
Chris Bosh, Heat: He matched his season low of four points (also had four in opening win over Mavs) in the dismantling by Boston. Missed nine of his 11 shots, which is very unlike Bosh.
5. Truth Teller?
6. Quote Of The Night
"The guy has no life. Even when he was young as an assistant, he never wanted to go out to dinner with me. He had things to do. He's boring." "
-- Thunder coach Scotty Brooks, having fun needling Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, whom he played under when Thibodeau was an assistant in Minnesota and New York.
7. NBA Video Channel
8. Tweet Of The Night
Last three times that LeBron has only made one free throw? L at BOS, L at OKC, L at LAL. All on national TV. "https://twitter.com/#!/tomhaberstroh/statuses/186576187257143297"— Tom Haberstroh @tomhaberstroh April 1, 2012
9. Thunderous Applause
Defining moment: With six minutes and change left in the third quarter, Russell Westbrook lobbed a chest pass from near half-court to a streaking Kevin Durant, who had somehow snuck behind the Bulls' defense. The lanky forward caught it in stride, and threw it down for a back-breaking, rafter-rattling, league foundation-shaking, slam. Hear this, NBA: There's a new sheriff in town.
That was scary: The Thunder have moved, quick as a Westbrook cut to the hoop, from "budding juggernaut" to juggernaut. Three times in the past week they've played games that were billed as likely NBA/Western Conference finals previews: In those matchups they've gone 3-0 with a 39-point margin.
MVP: Chicago's superstar spent Sunday in warm-up gear while the Thunder's dynamic duo penned another chapter in their (growing) legend. While Derrick Rose looked on, Durant and Westbrook combined for 53 points on 34 shots and committed a single turnover between them. The post-mortem analysis of this one could begin and end there.
10. MVP Debate