The elbow would become famous later. Rajon Rondo had not yet been rubbed by Mr. Miyagi’s healing hands. The night had not become historic, the game was still in question, and a 3-0 series deficit remained a possibility. That was when Paul Pierce dove on the floor for a steal, tearing the ball away from Lebron James’s surprised hands, drawing a foul and popping to his feet to encourage a roar from the crowd. The dive wasn’t legendary. It wasn’t anything we’ll see on highlight packages, or hearabout in bars, or describe to our grandchildren when we become old and gray. It was just one more little play that added up to a big win, a triumphant win, a historic win, a win that unfolded completely unscripted but still felt so very fitting.
Appreciate this. All of it. Remember everything about tonight—Rondo’s elbow, Rondo’s return, Pierce’s vintage outburst, Kevin Garnett’s mammoth performance, Shaq’s limp leg being dragged all over the court, the way the TD Garden crowd never stopped pressing the turbo button all night long, the (for lack of a more appropriate term) elephant-sized balls of a veteran team unwilling to dissipate into the night sky. Because we don’t know when this will all end. We don’t know when the Big Three era will come to a close. We don’t know when the Celtics will have to rebuild. We don’t know how many more games like this are left. Hell, just a few days ago these days seemed numbered. We hope, but we don’t know, and maybe it’s better this way, just living in the moment and soaking this in, relishing this night while having no idea where this is all headed.
When Rajon Rondo went down, the TD Garden crowd deflated. The Celtics were ahead by ten points. They were humming at the time. But their floor leader had gone down and he looked out for good, his elbow wrenched out of its socket like Willis McGahee’s leg once did. Rondo’s season was done. His elbow had bent backwards, for chrissake. Thoughts of a brilliant series comeback were flushed away. The Celtics might hold on to this game. But they couldn’t win the series. Not without Rondo.
Then Pierce hit an and-one. Garnett sunk a jumper. The Celtics weren’t feeling sorry for themselves because Rondo went down; they were building on their lead. Still, they couldn’t sustain it without Rondo, not for a whole series. And then there he was, strutting toward the bench, Willis Reed in a 6’1 frame, the toughest point guard in Boston Celtics franchise history, a man who had his elbow popped back into place so he could return to play. The elbow had been dislocated, and recovery from that injury normally takes three to six months. Rajon Rondo missed only seven minutes.
He came back and played mostly one-handed. Perhaps that doesn’t bode well for the next few games, but for tonight it was magnificent, the fabric of a legend, the perfect ending to a game that carried the perfume of Celtic Pride. He stole the ball and he dunked. He flitted through the defense for a layup. He somehow held his own despite being visibly afraid to even dribble with his left hand, helping the Celtics secure victory even though he could barely straighten his off arm. And somehow, as all his teammates fought off old age and nagging injuries of their own, all the insanity actually made sense.
I swear, it made sense. This is the Celtics’ destiny, batting off injuries, pushing on despite any bad luck that comes their way, absorbing setback after setback yet never tapping out. Pierce played through a strained Achilles. Delonte West hurt his shoulder. Shaq couldn’t make a swift movement without wincing, and really, couldn’t make a swift movement at all. Jermaine O’Neal has knees of gauze, and it’s a medical miracle Garnett ever returned to top form this season. Yet there the Celtics were, beating Miami into submission, the older team looking younger at least for one night, hopping and skipping and jumping and turning everyone in the TD Garden crowd into believers.
The night was surreal. It wasn’t just Rondo’s iron will, although that will deservedly steal the headlines. It was Garnett treating Chris Bosh like a kindergartener. It was Paul Pierce outplaying Lebron James. It was Shaq making his way back onto the court, even if he could barely move. It was Ray Allen needing to be restrained from going after Dwyane Wade. It was a group of veterans slightly diminished yet close to their youthful best, and it was a young, brash point guard earning his stripes and more. It was Jeff Green manning up, at least for one night. It was a franchise’s present colliding with its history, and it was the resulting masterpiece that formed in the collision’s wake.
Just a few days ago, everything seemed almost hopeless. The Heat were too athletic, the Celtics were too old, the torch was being passed, the series was all but over. Maybe it will still end badly. Maybe this was but a road bump in Miami’s ultimate series win. But don’t bother yourself with worrying about the future, just as you shouldn’t bother yourself with thinking about the past. For at least one night, after observing something that didn’t seem possible yet somehow made perfect sense, bathe in the present until your fingers can’t prune any more.