MIAMI - When it happened, the Twitter world, as well as Doc Rivers, tried to come up with an explanation. Had Rajon Rondo simply forgot where he was on the court?
Starting from pee-wee leagues, every basketball player makes a mental note of when he crosses half court. He or she forms a mental plane, realizing they cannot revert to that backcourt area. It’s one of the first rules of the sport. Yet, Rondo, a three-time All-Star and perhaps the best point guard in the NBA, flipped the ball back to Ray Allen in the third quarter despite just crossing the line.
That egregious error left the Celtics reeling. Rondo had once again lost focus at a critical moment, with his team was losing grip on Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals. Moments after Rondo’s mistake, Shane Battier followed with a 3-pointer and Udonis Haslem capped the 9-0 run with a baby hook.
The Heat led by 9, the white-clad AmericanAirlines Arena was roaring, and the Celtics were reeling. Through three quarters, Rondo was 1 for 9 from the floor with three turnovers. Though he was dishing out assists at his normally high rate, those who watch Rondo regularly knew he wasn’t engaged. He wasn’t aggressive. He wasn’t taking his open jumper and he was mentally freelancing, one of his biggest faults.
And he began the fourth by picking off an errant Dwyane Wade pass and then allowing rookie Norris Cole to chase him down and take it away. Rondo, usually brilliant at sensing trouble from his blindside, never appeared to hear footsteps.
Despite Rondo’s befuddling performance, the Celtics managed to battle back to take the lead until the Heat responded with a 9-0 run to take a 78-72 advantage with 6:17 left.
It was then that Rondo decided to use his unusually large hands to place his imprint on the game. It began with hustle, when he didn’t quit on the ball after Wade swatted Brandon Bass’s dunk attempt, sending the crowd into the frenzy. Rondo ignored the potential momentum swing, leapt high and tapped the loose ball to Mickael Pietrus behind the 3-point line. Pietrus calmly converted to cut the deficit to 3.
Perhaps energized by his play, Rondo finally decided to take the ball to the rim, scoring on a baby hook after posting up Mario Chalmers. On the next possession, he missed a running hook only to sneak behind James Jones and catch his tip off the rebound for an easy layup.
Like a quarterback that had been battered by an vicious defense but found his team still in the game, Rondo managed the final minutes beautifully as the Celtics shocked the Heat with a 94-90 comeback win.
The last time the Celtics were in Miami, Rondo dropped a career-high 44 points on the Heat in a Game 2 loss. Tuesday night he converted three field goals and committed five turnovers, but his brilliance over the final four minutes is why he is the central figure of his team.
It was no coincidence that when Rondo finally decided to show interest in winning this game - and not just competing - the Celtics took off.
“It was just a matter of time,’’ Rondo said when asked to explain his perplexing first 42 minutes. “My teammates told me to keep attacking. I made some mistakes I don’t usually make. I missed a lot of shots I usually make. But that’s irrelevant. We stuck with it and my teammates believed in me.’’
Why Rondo seems so engaged and passionate in some games and uninterested or erratic in others is baffles the Celtics. Coach Doc Rivers has stopped jumping on Rondo on every one of his mistakes and countered with encouragement. Rondo’s demeanor needs more encouragement than chastisement.
Rivers has raised four children, including his youngest, Spencer, who was 10 feet away watching dear ol’ dad address the media after the victory. And Rivers’s relationship with Rondo is in many ways similar to a son, blending tough love with pats on the back.
While Rivers may have uttered some expletives under his breath, he provided Rondo when plenty of pats because he is indeed capable of stunning turnarounds.
“Well, really, he kind of mirrored our whole team,’’ Rivers said of Rondo. “I thought we were, I don’t know, we wanted to win in the first three quarters but we didn’t play very well. We were sloppy at times. We just hung around enough to get to the fourth quarter. Honestly, in the first quarter, that’s the way - as a staff - we felt like we just got to try to hang around this game somehow because things are now going well. You could clearly see that from us.’’
Rondo took the Game 2 loss so hard he had to be consoled by a team official after speaking with the media. His 44-point effort meant nothing in his mind because the Celtics lost in overtime. It was a bitter defeat. On the flip side, Tuesday he was gleeful because whatever game he mustered, it aided victory.
He didn’t take control from the beginning like he did in Games 3 and 4, but he took command when it was necessary and his teammates followed his lead with big plays of their own.
It wasn’t Rondo’s greatest performance. It wasn’t even close. But his final four minutes were perhaps his most impactful stretch of the recent Big Three Era.