In a series where the Boston Celtics have precious few advantages over the Miami Heat, they could at least count on one thing: no matter how old, how injured and how tired they may be, they knew point guard Rajon Rondo would dominate his matchup. That's what has always happened every time these two teams have played since the Heatles were formed, with the exception of last year's playoffs, when Rondo was playing with one elbow.
And then, Game 1 happened.
The Celtics' 93-79 loss was bad enough, but of more concern is Rondo's struggles. After posting one triple-double and one 18-point, 15-assist line in Boston's two wins over Miami in mid-April, Rondo shot 8-20 on Monday night, scoring just 16 points and dropping only seven assists. Rarely does Rondo look as tentative against the Heat as he did in Game 1, stats be dammed.
Sixteen points, nine rebounds and seven assists isn't bad, but the Celtics need more from Rondo. Will they get it?
To answer that question, we first need to pinpoint exactly why Rondo was as ineffective as he was. On the one hand, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra made a beautiful adjustment midway through the third quarter. As discussed in our series preview, the Heat have often switched their coverage on Rondo throughout the regular season. In this game, Spoelstra took point guard Mario Chalmers out of the game and made Dwyane Wade the point guard, sticking him on Rondo, but letting him play way off him to act as a roamer defensively.
That's seven feet of cushion right there. It wasn't as if Wade was just playing off Rondo either, though. With all that space, he was often helping out defending other players. For example, here he is providing extra help on Ray Allen.
Here's another one where he's providing help on Kevin Garnett.
Finally, here's Wade turning his head completely away from Rondo to help on Allen again.
It's hard for Rondo to get the offense flowing when his man is double-teaming a bigger threat off the ball. Worse, on the other end, the switch forced Rondo to have to guard Wade. That sapped some of Rondo's energy and allowed Wade to dominate in pick and rolls. Rondo is a smart team defender, but because of the Celtics' scheme, he doesn't have much experience locking down a single guy one-on-one. That showed in the third and fourth quarters, as Wade scored 10 of his 22 points after the lineup switch.
On the other hand, we have to be careful to make too much out of this. For one, Doc Rivers will adjust. He'll send someone to screen Wade and have Rondo make strong cuts to get open. He may even put Rondo on the baseline and run more of the offense through Paul Pierce. The important thing is that he'll do something to help free Rondo up.
More importantly, Rondo will simply make the Heat pay more if he converts more layups. Seventeen of Rondo's 20 shots were in the paint on Monday. Ten of those 17 shots didn't go in. On the season, Rondo hit 59 percent of his shots at the rim ... and that was his lowest percentage since 2008. The Heat contested nearly all of those layups well and actually blocked several, to be fair, but they can't possibly count on replicating that kind of performance at the rim. If Rondo hits, say, five of those 10 layups, then his stat line looks much more impressive and this game is much closer.
All this is to say that Celtics fans should expect Rondo to play much better during this series. The Heat haven't figured him out yet. He just had one bad game.