MIAMI - This was Bob Cousy going for 50 against Syracuse in 1953. It was Sam Jones promising Bill Russell he’d “take care of things’’ in the deciding game, then going off for 47 against the Cincinnati Royals. It was John Havlicek scoring 43 against the Lakers in the noble 1969 Finals.
Rajon Rondo did it all Wednesday night. He hit jump shots. He banked in a reverse layup. He hit a couple of desperation threes in the final seconds of overtime. He dished. He rebounded. He made 10 of 12 free throws. He even guarded LeBron James after three of his teammates fouled out.
And he never came off the floor. Rondo played all 53 minutes. Just like Hondo back in the day.
“I felt fine,’’ Rondo said. “It was a mental grind for me individually, and for us as a team. It’s the conference finals. I wanted to play every minute. I thought I didn’t hurt my team by me playing every minute.’’
Rondo scored 44 points with 10 assists and 8 rebounds in a 115-111 Celtic loss to the Miami Heat. Just when you think he can’t get any better, he comes up with the ultimate game.
“It’s irrelevant,’’ said Rondo. “We lost. It’s as simple as that.’’
“His performance will go down in the record books,’’ said James. “He showed tonight why he’s one of the superstars in the league.’’
It was one of the great Celtic performances of all time. Unfortunately, it was not enough.
The Celtics now trail Miami, 0-2, as they come home to play Game 3 Friday night in the Garden. They have not recovered from an 0-2 deficit since Russell and Jones beat the Lakers in seven after losing the first two games of the Finals in ’69.
These 2011-12 Celtics are a lot like those old-guard Celtics who patched it together with a bunch of guys on their way out the door. Those Celtics had Russell and Sam ready to retire. They had Emmett Bryant playing the point. They had one player in his athletic prime: Havlicek.
Today, Rondo is the guy who has the motor that never stops running.
He made 16 of 24 floor shots Wednesday night. The Heat played back on him and let him shoot and he made them pay. He scored 12 in the first quarter and had 22 at halftime.
In overtime, one of the key plays of the game, Rondo missed a layup on a hard, contested drive to the basket. He was hit in the face by Dwyane Wade with no call. The score was 105-105 with less than two minutes to play when the officials missed the foul. Celtics coach Doc Rivers put himself between Rondo and the officials after the non-call.
“It was obvious,’’ said Rondo. “I can’t comment on that play in particular. It’s part of the game. Things didn’t go our way. That was a big swing for us. I think we had the momentum. A lot of controversy out there, just didn’t go our way.’’
It’s hard to know whether to be encouraged or discouraged by what happened in this game. The Celtics were able to build a 15-point lead in the second quarter, but they gave it all up in the third when Miami led by 8. They scared the Heat in their own building. They did not fold when Miami stormed ahead. But sometimes it feels like the Heat are merely toying with the old guys in green. The skill of James (34 points) and Wade (23) is just a little too much for Boston’s depleted team.
Rondo had talked about making some of the Heat “hit the deck’’ after Miami routed the Celtics in Game 1. None of that proved necessary. Rondo took it to the Heat all by himself in the first half, hitting wide-open jumpers and beating the Heat to the basket.
Miami coach Erik Spoelstra calls Rondo “the maestro,’’ and Rondo was equal parts Arthur Fiedler and Oscar Robertson in Game 2.
“He was absolutely phenomenal,’’ said Rivers. “Put the whole team on his shoulders. It’s tough to have him play that way and not win the game, honestly, because he did basically everything right.
“I didn’t start the game saying I’m going to play Rondo the whole game, I just kind of read the situation.’’
Rondo at times has been a frustrating player for Rivers and general manager Danny Ainge. He’s been immature, had issues with officials, and sometimes seems to leave his best game at home. Ainge tried to trade him before the start of this season and he’s been scolded for sometimes saving his best games for national television.
But he is the best player on the Celtics now. It’s not even close. Wednesday night, he was also better than LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Too bad it wasn’t enough.