ORLANDO — Ten years ago, Rajon Rondo was the fourth member behind the Big Three, the baby of the talented bunch who was a rising star at point guard. The Celtics were one game from a second NBA championship in three years, and then they were robbed by Kobe Bryant’s fourth-quarter greatness and just plain exhaustion.
The Big Three thought they would return to the Finals, but LeBron James signed with the Miami Heat a few weeks later and they twice denied the Celtics. Suddenly the Celtics’ Big Three was replaced by a new Miami Big Three with free-agent signee Ray Allen. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce aged and then were traded.
Rondo then tore his ACL and was later shipped to the Dallas Mavericks. The Big Three was done. And Rondo endured a bumpy journey to Sacramento, Chicago, New Orleans and finally Los Angeles.
He has returned to the Finals, as a Laker, as a 34-year-old, as a reserve guard, as a mentor. It’s a bizarre appearance, Rondo as a Laker, offering advice to millennial teammates about not taking the game and this trip to the promised land for granted.
Game 1 of the NBA Finals is Wednesday as the Lakers will play the Heat at AdventHealth Arena.
Rondo has been crucial in the Lakers’ playoff run, returning to “Playoff Rondo,” a moniker he earned with his brilliant performances in Boston. But the game wasn’t always kind to Rondo and he hasn’t always made the best decisions in his previous stops.
But he’s been a leader for the Lakers, an experienced veteran who has embraced his age and knowledge.
“Well, when I was a lot younger I had a lot of success,” he said Tuesday. “I won [a title] at  years old and now being 34, it’s a completely different experience, and understanding that this doesn’t come often or annually. Being back here over a decade later is a very humbling experience, and I’m letting my young guys know from all the rookies to the second- or third-year players like [Kyle Kuzma], that this opportunity doesn’t come often. Guys search for this moment their entire career, and we definitely have to seize the moment.”
Time flies doesn’t it? Rondo is in his 14th season. Allen retired six years ago and is in the Naismith Hall of Fame. Garnett will be inducted next season. Pierce and Kendrick Perkins are TV personalities. Doc Rivers agreed to leave the Los Angeles Clippers after seven seasons as coach.
The Celtics’ Big Three had a chance to reach potential dynasty status 10 years ago, traveling to Los Angeles with a 3-2 series lead, needing one win. They lost Game 6, 89-67, perhaps the most disappointing game of the Rivers era because the Celtics played as if they had a game to give away.
They were more focused in Game 7, a low-scoring, mistake-filled defensive affair that Boston led, 57-53, after the third quarter. The fourth quarter will go down as one of the more regrettable stretches of the Big Three era. The Celtics sent the Lakers to the free throw line 21 times. The great Bryant, in one of his toughest offensive showings, scored all but 2 of his 10 fourth-quarter points from the free throw line.
Ron Artest and Derek Fisher hit monumental 3-pointers. Rasheed Wallace, exhausted, fouled out forcing Rivers to use Glen Davis at center because Perkins tore his ACL in Game 6. The Celtics lost 83-79. The pain still remains for Rondo, who finished with 14 points, 8 rebounds and 10 assists.
“I think I blurred a lot of it out,” Rondo said when asked about that Game 7. “It was ugly. We were up 3-2 and obviously we didn’t get the job done. We were up in the fourth quarter, that stands out to me, as well. But Kobe played well. He didn’t have a great offensive scoring night, but he did a lot of intangibles. He had I think 18 rebounds (15, actually). Pau Gasol played well. [Andrew] Bynum played well, key role players hit big shots, Fisher, Ron Artest. It was a collective team effort.
“But that’s a long, long time ago, and I look forward to obviously changing the chapter and continuing to go past this different chapter in my life and write a better story ending.”
After a one-year stint with the Pelicans and with Anthony Davis, Rondo signed a one-year, $9 million deal to join the Lakers. He re-signed this summer, at the urging of Davis, to a two-year minimum deal with a player option for next season.
The payoff for the Lakers has been getting Playoff Rondo. In 10 playoff games, Rondo is averaging 9.1 points, 7.2 assists, 3.8 rebounds, and 1.6 steals in just 24 minutes. And after years of struggling as a shooter, Rondo has converted 13 of 29 3-point attempts in the playoff bubble.
Rondo is playing as if it were those Big Three days, but the body and mind tell him those days are past. It’s time to cherish the moment.
“Coach [Frank] Vogel has instilled a lot of confidence in me coming back, obviously, saying that I play a very important role on this team,” Rondo said. “Those guys from the top believed in me from Day One, and I just didn’t want to let my teammates down. I didn’t want to let myself down. I’m a very competitive person, and feeling like I do have an impact on this team, helping this team win.”