Jason Collins made an instant offensive impact, Erick Dampier and Tracy McGrady played key roles, Rajon Rondo slipped and fell on a fast break with nobody in his path, Willie Green took Atlanta’s most critical shot, and I sat there watching everything unfold, wary of Boston’s raggedy play yet reveling in the oddities of it all.
If Penny Hardaway had grabbed a knee brace, checked into the scorer’s table, unzipped a hoodie to reveal a Hawks jersey and pitched in 20 points, I might have just shrugged and called it par for the course.
Perhaps it took such a night — when old superstars made their revivals, washed-up dudes who we long forgot made their presences felt and offensive execution seemed an utter afterthought — for Rondo to contribute the most underwhelming playoff triple-double of his career. It was the seventh time Rondo secured a triple-double in the playoffs, which tied LeBron James for second behind Jason Kidd on the active list. But if Rondo triple-doubles are normally Van Goghs, this was a stick figure drawn in crayon.
For every nice play he made — and there were a few, like his jumping spin-o-rama pass from the paint to an open Paul Pierce in the corner, or his left-handed reverse scoop while avoiding a Hawk in the open court — there was an equal and opposite mistake, like the aforementioned botched fast-break layup, when Rondo took off by his lonesome but fell backwards like the bobsledders in Cool Runnings when they tried running on ice for the very first time. Once, Rondo even inbounded the basketball directly into the hands of an opponent. I don’t imagine that was Doc Rivers’ plan.
Friday’s triple-double wasn’t perfection or even anywhere along the pursuit. It was a feat born in survival, with Rondo kicking into gear as the second half arrived and the Celtics desperately needed their point guard operating near his best.
As Atlanta coach Larry Drew ruefully noted after the Hawks lost 90-84, “Rondo was the difference tonight.”
After halftime, the elusive, stubborn magician poured in 15 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists. The numbers in the end totaled 17 points, 14 rebounds, 12 assists and four steals, a line no man has ever matched in the NBA playoffs. Yet Rondo didn’t play his best.
Nor have the Celtics. They surrendered a million points in the first quarter of Game 1, barely survived Game 2 and did all they could to kick away Game 3. Watching Boston’s third consecutive meager offensive output Friday, I found myself stuck someplace between two contrasting thoughts:
1) These are the 2012 Boston Celtics. They win ugly. That’s who they are.
2) If it’s that goddamn difficult to score a bucket against Collins, Dampier and co., how in the hell do the Celtics plan to light up the scoreboard against Chicago, Philadelphia and/or Miami?
The Celtics can, and need to, play better. These Hawks have very little quit in them, as evidenced by earning the Eastern Conference’s fourth-best record despite playing almost the entire season without their best player. Last night Zaza Pachulia and Josh Smith joined Al Horford on the sidelines, replaced by two guys who made sense starting in 2005 but haven’t had real roles in the NBA in years. On my train home from the TD Garden last night, another passenger told his friend, “Damn, I didn’t even know Dampier was still alive.” Yet the Celtics need an extra five minutes to dispatch the depleted Hawks.
“It wasn’t pretty,” said Paul Pierce. “But who said it has to be pretty? At the end of the day we have to win four games and we’ve won two.”
Rondo’s triple-double wasn’t a masterpiece. Boston’s performance wasn’t aesthetically pleasing enough to convert any hockey fans. The Celtics and Rondo know they can play better. But for now, in the one-game-at-a-time world that is the NBA playoffs, a win’s enough.