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In the wake of the Eastern Conference Semifinal Game 1 loss to the Orlando Magic, Celtics fans are tasked with looking at the stats and performances of the stars and evaluate why Boston found themselves down 28 points in the third quarter. Without Kevin Garnett, it’s obvious that Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and most importantly Rajon Rondo cannot afford to have off nights if the Celtics want to win and advance in the playoffs. While Ray (2-12 FGs) and the Truth (7-18 FGs) surely didn’t perform up to expectations, it’s Rondo who seems to have the most impact on the outcome of these playoff games. As we’ve seen in the first eight games of the 2009 playoffs (and his three full seasons for that matter), Rajon Rondo is both the most exciting and the most frustrating player on the Celtics roster.
There is no doubt Rondo is one of the top five point guards in the NBA. His speed, steal ability and amazingly low propensity for turnovers make him invaluable to the Celtics for the better half of most games. Yes, just most of the game. Though RR averaged nearly a triple-double in the Chicago series, his inexperience down the stretch of games directly led to two defeats.
In Game 4, the Celtics and Bulls went back and forth near the end of regulation but the Celts found themselves with the ball in a tie game for the last possession. Instead of passing the ball off or driving to the lane, Rondo instead pulled up for a mid-range jumper (not exactly his bread and butter) and of course clanked it to send the game to OT. At the end of the second OT with the Celts down three, Rondo failed to get Pierce the ball in time (or look for another option) and the Truth was force to heave up a rushed shot which was partially blocked as the buzzer sounded. Rondo’s stats for the game were remarkable – 25 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists, just 1 turnover – yet his inability to recognize what needed to be done at the end of the game cost the Celtics a chance to take a 3-1 series lead.
Fast forward to Game 6, also in Chicago. The Celts looked dead and buried early in the fourth quarter before staging an incredible comeback to take a 99-91 lead with a few minutes remaining and the United Center went completely silent. Rondo was fouled on a drive to the hoop and had two free throws which could have probably iced the game. He missed both. Just about two minutes later, Brad Miller hit a three and a layup and the Bulls tied the game and it was sent into the first of three overtime games. Like we saw last night (with an airball on a FT), Rondo isn’t a consistent free throw shooter and though at the time those seemed insignificant, they turned out to be huge missed opportunities for points. Later in the game came the play which will be most remembered from game 6. The Celtics needed a bucket with time running out in the third OT and Rondo drove the lane on Derrick Rose but instead of going for a layup or trying for the foul, he pulled up and tried a fade away which was blocked easily by Rose and the ensuing scramble saw the Bulls get the ball with a chance to ice the victory. Rondo’s half court heave at the buzzer was off the mark and the Bulls sent the series to a 7th game. Rondo had 19 assists, 9 rebounds and 0 turnovers in 57 minutes of play, but shot 4-17 and missed both of his FT attempts.
Last night in Game 1 against the Magic we were witness to a single play which sums up the Rajon Rondo viewing experience. Late in the fourth as the Celts were trying to stage a Nets-like improbable comeback, Rondo – attempting to save clock by letting the ball roll up the floor – had the ball stolen by Skip to My Lou Alston, but then dove on the floor, regained control from Rafer and heaved the ball down court to an open Brian Scalabrine for three. The play was made by the stupidity and then creativity of Rajon Rondo. It was great the way it ended up, but imagine if he had simply lost the ball in that crucial situation? His stats are flattering for how he played – 14 points (10 of which FTs), 10 rebounds, eight assists.
The Celtics would not be where they are at without Rondo. But for my money, I simply do not want the ball in his hands when the game is in the balance. His ineptitude at hitting mid-range jumpers consistently, sporadic FT shooting and tentativeness driving the lane in the dying minutes of a game make him a risk to give the ball in the last minute of a playoff game. But for that first 47 minutes, just sit back and enjoy the show.