The Celtics writhed on the floor, threatening to stand to their feet, promising to snap out of the sleeper hold Miami held them in, but every time they came close to gaining their footing Miami applied a little more pressure and the Celtics fell back down into the struggle. This was unexpected, the Heat beating the Celtics at their own game, physically and emotionally tougher, one step ahead, more prepared, a statue of poise in a game that pushed the limits of composure, tightening their hold until Boston could struggle no more.
If the script called for Boston’s experience to provide a significant advantage, this was the script flipped, the Heat playing the part of the wise sage while the Celtics played the part of the frustrated and suppressed challenger. Yet after the game there would be no panic in Boston. Experience had abandoned the Celtics in Game 1, but when they needed history to act like a handrail, they could still call on past glory. They can play better, they know, and they expect to. And it all starts with Rajon Rondo.
When Rondo stares across the court at Mike Bibby, it’s similar to Jack Bauer sizing up Screech Powers, the trained killer targeting his cross-hairs on a high school dweeb. The Heat have no equal for Rondo, nobody even close to the stratosphere to which he can soar on his better days. When Rondo reaches that rare air only a handful of point guards can reach, Bibby has as much chance of stopping him as Boy George had of being named prom queen. Point blank, Bibby can’t stop Rondo. In this series, only Rondo can. In Game 1, which spelled bad news for the Celtics, he did.
First there was the foul trouble, caused partially by one bad call and partially by Rondo’s decision to waste his second foul against a streaking Lebron James. Then there were the turnovers. Lots of them, and worse, a barrage of them came just when Boston started to threaten. There was Rondo’s 3-10 shooting, his singular visit to the foul line (at least he made both free throws!), and—during a series we (or at least I) expected a near-triple double every game—Rondo didn’t reach double figures in a single category except field goal attempts.
Really, his day could be symbolized by one play. He was isolated on Bibby. No help came from any of Bibby’s teammates, who seemed woefully unaware of the basketball’s location. Rondo turned the jets on like we’ve seen so many times, and we assumed his patented righty scoop from the left side was on the way. Instead, Bibby blocked him. Wait, Bibby blocked him? I pinched myself. It hurt. It was actually real life.
In fairness to him, Rondo won his own matchup. Bibby and Mario Chalmers (we’ll heretofore call the duo Marike Balmers) combined to contribute almost nothing to the Miami cause, at least offensively, and Rondo had more points, rebounds and assists than Marike Balmers could muster in tandem. But the Celtics can’t afford Rondo to play Miami’s point guards to a virtual draw. He’s their one biggest advantage, their differentiator, and so he needs to be Red Auerbach to Marike Balmers’ Vinny Del Negro.
Taking completely unprovoked shots at Vinny Del Negro helps soothe the soul. And after watching Game 1, my soul needed soothing.
“I thought [Rondo] and Kevin [Garnett] played the game in, though instead of intensity, they were thinking about what they should do instead of just playing,” Doc Rivers said. “They both played with the right spirit; it just didn’t go well.”
But these Celtics have a faith that more closely resembles cockiness, even when things don’t go their way. Over the years they have sparred with adversity. They’ve taken punches and done there share of stumbling around grasping for a clinch. They’ve fought back and felled heavyweights. They cannot field an uppercut they haven’t seen, nor a right hook they haven’t fended off. They haven’t been champions since 2008, but the Celtics still walk with a royal strut.
“We have a lot of confidence,” said Kevin Garnett. “This team has never lacked that.”
They’ll need that confidence today, because the Heat sense an opening. The Heat see a Boston team jousting for its lives, tentatively balancing on wobbly legs. Go back to Boston 1-1 and this series leans Boston’s way. But put the Celtics down 2-0 and Miami might be able to start putting nails in Boston’s coffin.
These Celtics are old. They’re cranky. They’ve run into the latest NBA upstart, an eye-opening collection of top-end talent, and they trail 1-0. But they will never show fear, not this group. They know what to do. Get the ball to Rondo and follow his lead, and hope the point guard again sprouts the wings he wore in round one. If not, the Celtics will hunt for another way to win. But they know what gives them their best chance, and that’s for their point guard, their most important piece, to re-visit that rarely-traveled-to stratosphere reserved for very few.