Rajon Rondo’s performance in the playoffs highlighted why the Celtics have considered trading him, and also why they asked a very steep price for him.
Rondo was suspended for the second game of the first-round series against the Hawks, and his absence could have meant an early ousting. If not for a Paul Pierce explosion and a strong bench contribution in Game 2 against Atlanta, there might not have been a second-round series against the 76ers, much less a seven-game Eastern Conference finals against the Heat.
When Rondo bumped referee Marc Davis in Atlanta on April 29, he crossed the line of being able to control his emotions. That impetuousness, combined with a penchant for defensive gambles and an inconsistent perimeter shot, have exasperated the Celtics for most of the last five years.
But as the playoffs continued, Rondo appeared to be moving past all of that. His 44-point game against the Heat showed what he can accomplish individually. Other statistics - 16 double-digit assist games, a team-leading 20.9 points per game against the Heat, 6.9 rebounds per game against Miami (second on the team) - indicate Rondo is achieving high-level consistency.
Rondo and the Celtics have had a stormy relationship at times. But after these playoffs, the bonds appear to have been strengthened - at least until the next suitor comes along with a proposition.
Most of the Celtics seemed to accept their fate after a 101-88 loss to the Heat in Game 7 Saturday night. It could have been the final game together for the Ray Allen-Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce trio.
But Rondo remained defiant, contending the Celtics’ downfall was the result of simply missing shots they normally make.
“We had some great looks,’’ he said. “Paul, Ray, myself, Kevin. We just didn’t knock them down. They got to the loose balls, offensive rebounds, and made plays and executed offensively.’’
Told that coach Doc Rivers believed fatigue caught up with the Celtics, Rondo replied, “It could be. It’s your opinion.’’
It was a difficult result for Rondo to accept. He had displayed an almost flawless first half - 10 assists, zero turnovers. He finished with 22 points, 10 rebounds, and 14 assists, his fourth triple-double of the playoffs.
Rondo gave the impression he believed he could almost will teammates to make shots.
“Great season,’’ he said. “We let this one slip away. We had a lot of opportunities.
“We could have done a couple of things better defensively. Our rotations weren’t crisp in the pick and roll. We made bad decisions, overpenetration, gave up a lot of threes, two to [Chris] Bosh, a couple to [Shane] Battier. Give them credit. They spread the points out as a team and about five or six players scored in double digits. Give them credit, they played great as a team. We just came up short.’’
The Celtics’ margin for error was thin, though.
They stuck to their guns, some impressive offensive execution and defensive anticipation helping produce double-figure leads in the first half. The Celtics were 21 for 40 (52.5 percent) from the field in the opening two quarters against one of the best defensive teams in the league.
And the Celtics were able to expose Miami’s flaws for much of Game 7, disrupting dribble penetration, getting into passing lanes. But they could only temporarily slow down LeBron James, who had 76 points and 27 rebounds while playing all but three minutes of Games 6 and 7, and were unable to contend with Bosh (19 points, 8 rebounds). Bosh shot 8 for 10 from the field, converting three 3-pointers, his only miss from long range on a hurried, last-second attempt at the first-half buzzer.
But the Celtics failed to live up to their reputation as closers. Only one Celtic - Rondo - was able to score in the final 6:10 of Game 7. During that time, the score was Miami 13, Rondo 4.
The Celtics were on fumes as they concluded this game, their 20th of the postseason. Nobody knew it at the time, but after a 94-90 win over the Heat in Miami in Game 5, the Celtics only had two really good quarters left. In the first half of Game 7, they showed just how proficient they can be when on their game, with forceful defending led by Garnett, and creative, precision offense under Rondo’s direction.
Rondo was still in form in the second half, and the Celtics still held the lead with eight minutes remaining. But it was no fluke that Miami closed the game with a 20-6 run. The Celtics displayed some impressive precision and resourcefulness in the series. Had they been able to win Game 2 - a 115-111 overtime defeat - they would have had a good chance of advancing to the Finals. But once Bosh returned from injury and the series became extended, the Celtics’ days were numbered.