May 28, 2012; Miami, FL, USA; Boston Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo (9) looks on during the second half in game one of the Eastern Conference finals of the 2012 NBA playoffs against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE
Rajon Rondo dazzled everyone with 44 points and 10 assists in Game 2, but it wasn't enough. LeBron James scored 34 points of his own, and the Heat survived the Celtics in overtime.
"You're not gonna see an NBA player ever play much better than what you've seen tonight." That was Jeff Van Gundy Wednesday night, somewhere near the end of Rajon Rondo's obnoxiously brilliant 44-point, 10-assist, eight-rebound effort.
As the game went on, he just kept getting better and the whole thing got more unbelievable. Rondo played all 53 minutes of Game 2 and single-handedly carried the Celtics offense for stretches at a time. Like Van Gundy said, it's hard to imagine a more impressive night.
Especially in context. Boston looked dead against the Heat in Game 1, in part because Rondo never really got going on offense. That left the Celtics depending on Kevin Garnett's midrange jumpers and the dead legs of Paul Pierce to carry them on offense, and ... yeah, they got blown out.
It was ugly to watch. If Boston was gonna have any chance in Game 2, Rondo knew they needed more out of him, and everyone else knew it too. So it speaks volumes that with a world of pressure on his shoulders, Rondo just unleashed the best game of his life.
"I have no idea, I'll be honest," Erik Spoelstra said afterward, when a reporter asked how they defended Rondo. "We've tried almost everything with him, and the conventional wisdom of saying he's got to beat you with the score, beat you with the jumpshot, beat you by not getting all the other guys going. What it speaks to is his competitiveness; he's a competitor. He's a basketball player. Whatever that team needs, he's going to do."
His stats speak for themselves, but Rondo's night is even better because the Celtics needed it so badly. If this year's really the end of the Big Three era in Boston, maybe Wednesday was the game when Rondo officially became the superfreak superstar of the future. Twisting his way through the lane and finishing at the rim, getting to the line early and often and hitting from the perimeter.
When Rondo's rolling, his game doesn't explode on opposing defenses so much as it slowly suffocates them. First with penetration, then with step-back jumpers, and finally, when the defense swarms, he'll hit his teammates. Not to mention the Gumby arms he brings to the defensive end, where he harassed Miami all night. The whole time, he does it unlike anybody else in basketball, wrapping himself around defenders, making play after play that makes no sense.
The Celtics could put four dead guys next to him, and they'd still be one of the most exciting teams in the league, just to see what Rondo does on every possession.
But it's his scoring that matters most. That's the what became clear Wednesday: He's gotta be a killer for this Celtics team to have a chance in this series. Also clear: even if he plays like the superstar the Celtics need and maxes out on all cylinders, it may not matter.
You can point to the no-call in overtime to explain where things went wrong for the Celtics, where Rondo got smacked in the face on a lay-up that would've given Boston the lead. Instead of two free throws, Rondo laid on the floor while Miami went the other way 5-on-4 and got an easy dunk for Udonis Haslem.
But Boston's problem is that they can't survive plays like that. Every basket they score in crunch time feels like a small miracle and any basket it doesn't get could be what kills them. It's a microcosm of their problem in this series, in general.
Miami makes it look easy by comparison. They can miss free throws, botch crunch-time offense, sleepwalk through the first half ... against a better team it would catch up to them. But Miami's the better team this week. They always have a chance because they're younger, faster and more powerful. Rondo's genius evened up the spectrum in Game 2, but Boston didn't even the series because a couple bad breaks -- giving up the offensive rebound on the last possession in the fourth, the no-call in overtime -- were too much to overcome.
There will be fans all over the place saying that the refs cost Boston a winnable game, but Boston's bigger problem is that they can't afford to lose even one winnable game. Think of it like boxing. For the better boxer, every round's winnable. Lose one, win the next one. Almost like a reflex. There's no fear. On the other hand, the overmatched underdog only sees so many winnable rounds. When he has his shots, he's got to connect.
With Avery Bradley hurt and a bunch of fossilized Hall of Famers playing 40 minutes-a-night, the Celtics have been overmatched here. You can't count on them going toe-to-toe with LeBron and Wade every night, so when they do go toe-to-toe and still lose, it feels like a death blow. That's Game 2.
On the bright side ... Rondo's night will live on long past this series. Whatever happens to the Celtics over the next week, there's life after this era, and it all starts with Rondo, the freak of nature point guard who can wrap his endless arms around a game when his team needs it most. He'll need to do it more often in the future, but after Wednesday, there's no questioning his talent.
As for the next week ... the series isn't over and God knows we've seen the Heat collapse before. But down two games, the team with no margin for error goes home down 2-0. Superstar Rondo or not, their chances of survival look slimmer than ever.