EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 29, 2009

Rondo gives C's a puncher's chance

On Basketball

BOSTON — As Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers walked down the hallway away from the press room, he spied Chicago Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro approaching.

Their eyes met. They stopped. And hugged.

It was the kind of hug two heavyweights would give at the end of a 12-round bout after a split decision.

"That was something, huh?" said Rivers.

"It was incredible," Del Negro responded.

This one felt like a Game 7, with the Celtics winning in overtime, 106-104. It had everything we've seen the last week or so — a fourth quarter comeback, missed free throws at the end, Ben Gordon in unstoppable mode, Rajon Rondo in (almost) triple-double mode and Paul Pierce in Paul Pierce mode.

The only problem is we're not done. And according to the script, we're not even close.

The Celtics took the lead in the series and fly to Chicago later today ahead, 3-2.

Last night marked the third overtime game of the series, an NBA record. A Gordon 3-pointer at the end of Game 2, that just missed going in, and we would have had a fourth game that went into overtime.

Crazy, apparently, was the operative word.

"It's crazy," said Bulls center Brad Miller. "I've never played in anything like this."

"It's crazy," said Rondo, "especially playing the amount of minutes that we're playing as starters ... I think I played 55 minutes last game and I played 50 (last night)."

The Bulls, which entered the playoffs with a disappointing record of 41-41, have shocked the basketball world much the same way the Atlanta Hawks did a year ago, when they entered the playoffs at 37-45 and eventually forced the top-seeded Celtics to a seventh game.

But I'm going to be my typical provincial self and focus on the home team.

My head says the Celtics don't have what it takes to win a championship. Five games into their first playoff series, they've expended a tremendous amount of energy.

But maybe we are selling these Celtics, even sans Kevin Garnett, short.

Maybe, like the Hawks, the young and talented Bulls needed a do-or-die series to bring out their best.

Maybe, we are underestimating how good Rondo is.

While Pierce made the big shots, particularly at the end of regulation (his turnaround jumper tied the score at 93-93 with 10.5 seconds remaining) and overtime (he was 3-for-3 on three more fall-away jumpers), Rondo was the difference.

He not only played every minute in the second half and overtime, but he was the catalyst when Celtics trailed 81-71 with 8:08 remaining in regulation.

Rondo not only scored eight points before the extra frame, but he had three assists and a steal.

In overtime, it was four points and another assist.

Rondo's best play, though, according to Rivers, was with two seconds to go in overtime.

The Bulls trailing by two and trying to get the ball in to Gordon, of course, couldn't as Rondo and Kendrick Perkins both covered him. That left Miller alone, who got the ball near the three-point line and appeared to have an open layup for the tie.

But as Miller was about to lay the ball in he was KO'd, literally. The 290-pound Bulls center was sent to the deck by the Celtics lightweight, Rondo.

After a timeout, Miller got some medical attention, appearing to caress a welt over his right eye. Miller went to the foul line, with a chance to force a second overtime.

He didn't even come close to making the first one, with the ball hitting the front rim and bouncing back. Trying to miss the second on purpose, Miller never hit the rim, giving the Celtics the win.

Depending on which coach you talked to, there were two views of Rondo's foul.

"It was a great foul by Rondo," said Rivers. "You always talk about playoff basketball — no layups. Rondo did it on the very last play and it won the game for us."

Del Negro saw it the other way.

"You have to go for the basketball and Rondo didn't come near it," he said. "I thought it was a flagrant (foul), and I thought it was a physical call. I agree that it is a playoff foul, but you still have to call it."

Rondo finished with a game-high 28 points, a game-high 11 assists and eight rebounds.

Those are not the numbers of a good point guard. They are the numbers of a great one. And since these playoffs have started, he has been there every game, win or lose.

Considering that Ray Allen fouled out with 5:27 remaining in regulation and Garnett's only contribution was as a cheerleader, it couldn't have come at a better time.

"I'm just concentrating better," said Rondo. "I'm all about basketball. I'm not watching the news. I'm not doing anything else but focusing on basketball."

Could the Celtics beat Chicago, Orlando, Cleveland and then, God forbid, the Los Angeles Lakers?

It sounds crazy.

But maybe it isn't. Maybe Rondo has changed everything. Maybe the Celtics middleweight — Rondo is listed at 178 pounds — gives the Celtics a puncher's chance.

If you don't believe me, ask Brad Miller.

E-mail Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com.