HANG TIME PLAYOFF HEADQUARTERS — With a slim three-point lead and their closer heading to the bench with four minutes and change left to play, few people inside TD Garden would have chosen Rajon Rondo as the man to save the Celtics’ Game 7 bacon against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Rondo was mysteriously missing in action for most of the first 44 minutes of the biggest game, to date, of the Celtics’ season. But he turned it on when it mattered most, scoring 11 of the 12 points, including nine straight, in the three minutes after Paul Pierce fouled out with 4:16 to play.
The Celtics’ famed Big 3 is officially a Plus-1 now, since they’re moving on to the Eastern Conference finals to face the Miami Heat Monday night because of the late-game heroics of the one member of the band least known for his offensive prowess.
Rondo knocked down a driving layup and two deep jumpers (one was initially called a 3-pointer but later changed to a 2-pointer after being reviewed and the second was a 3-pointer well behind the line) to extend the Celtics’ lead back to double digits while Pierce was still getting settled in his seat on the bench to watch the final minutes of the Celtics’ 85-75 win.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers had no fear with Rondo stepping up for both shots, the first to beat the shot clock and the second a dagger Rondo stepped into like he was as sharpshooter instead of an All-Star point guard known best for setting the table for his teammates and being one of the best defensive and rebounding points guards in league history.
“Go in, please,” Rivers said when asked what went through his mind seeing Rondo raise up for both of those crunch time 3-pointers. “I’m not above praying … When you get him in rhythm he’s a good shooter. I’ve been saying for that last couple of years. The first [3-pointer] he didn’t have a choice because of the shot clock. The first one he had to take. The second one, he wanted that shot. He stepped into it. And it was big. Big.”
Whatever hopes the Sixers had of shocking the world and making the conference finals as the eighth-seed vanished with a few flicks of Rondo’s wrist.
“We had a great chance to win,” Sixers coach Doug Collins said, “we had a great chance to win. And then Rondo made some great plays. Those were the shots we would have liked for him to take. Those are the shots that, if they go in, they change a series. And he wasn’t afraid to take them.”
Rondo’s triple-double (18 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, his ninth career playoff triple-double) and monster work at the finish proved to be the difference in a rugged defensive series that pushed the Celtics to the brink yet again, they’ve played a six Games 7s in the past five seasons. Rondo’s finishing touch gives him a playoff memory of his own to add to the long list of magical postseason moments the Celtics have piled sky-high over the years.
It’s one of the reasons Collins won’t hear anything about the Celtics’ Big 3.
“I don’t look at them as a Big 3,” Collins said. “They’re a Championship Four. Anyone leaving Rondo out is making a huge mistake.”
Rondo and the Celtics did have to lean on the aging Big 3 to get them to crunch time. Pierce made his usual array of wicked, shot-clock beating shots. Ray Allen, after struggling with his shot throughout the entire series, buried two critical 3-pointers in the fourth quarter to help hold the Sixers off. Garnett battled from start tot finish on both ends of the floor, finishing with 18 points and 13 rebounds, and grinding through his usual workload in a way that few men with his lengthy experience in the league are capable of at this stage of the game.
Rondo, who is tied with Wilt Chamberlain and trails only Larry Bird (10), Jason Kidd (11) and Magic Johnson (30) in career playoff triple doubles, shunned the hero cape afterwards. Maybe he didn’t want anyone to miss that Celtics-green designed shirt he was rocking at the podium? Perhaps, it dawned on him that the Celtics are just halfway to their ultimate goal and have to take their talents to South Beach to face a Heat team that eliminated them in the conference semifinals last season.
Plus, he was feeling guilty for a some of his late turnovers. He blamed himself for Pierce fouling out. So he was just making amends by stepping into Pierce’s role at the end.
“My teammates needed me to step up,” Rondo said. “It was a team effort. I just happened to score seven or eight points in a row. But my teammates got us to that point.”
Sure they did.
But Rondo rescued them from what could have been the end of an era and delivered them to the Eastern Conference finals, the Celtics’ third trip there the past five years.