Date: March 4, 2012
Location: TD Banknorth Garden, Boston, MA
Final Score: 115-111 (OT)
Key Players: Rajon Rondo (Man-sized triple double, 18 points, 17 rebounds, 20 assists), Paul Pierce (34 points, 13-23 from field)
Top Plays: 0:44 (Pierce beats Steve Novak easily off the dribble, dunks all over the Knicks), 2:53 (Pierce hits a three to send the game into overtime).
Rundown: We’ve all heard the narrative, and, unlike so many other narratives (ie. “Paul Pierce is weak,” etc.) this one may actually be true. When the lights are the brightest, the opponent is the most important, and the game is the most watched, Rajon Rondo seems to rise to the occasion. A home game against the streaking division rival Knicks and their phenom Jeremy Lin was just such a game. Rondo lit up the Knicks for 18 points and 20 assists, which were both staggering statistics, but it was the third part of his triple double that was most difficult to believe. Rondo has always been an excellent rebounder, especially for his position. But 17 rebounds would qualify as an above average game for Kevin Love, let alone a 6’1 point guard.
Rondo wasn’t alone in carrying the Celtics to victory. Many of his assists were to Paul Pierce, who was more than ready to take on a Knicks team he has tormented over the years. He did so again in this game, dropping 34 points on 13-23 shooting, 4-7 from three point range. But none of his field goals were as important as his final shot of regulation. Coming off a handoff/screen from Garnett, Pierce, fully aware that the Celtics needed three to tie, took one dribble, pump faked, and fired up an off balance three over Iman Shumpert, who ALSO was fully aware that the Celtics needed a three to tie and wasn’t about to let Pierce get off an open shot.
Shumpert’s defense didn’t matter. Splash. Overtime.
Rondo took over in the extra period, outrunning the Knicks, and contributing on every point. The Celtics, who were beginning to find their post-All-Star game groove, won their fourth consecutive game. The win set the Knicks back to 1.5 games behind the C’s.
What it meant: Earlier, we covered Boston’s 31 point early season drubbing of the Orlando Magic, a game that showed that the Celtics still could play lockdown defense and beat playoff caliber opponents. This game was similarly important. Boston had shown signs of life since the All-Star break, beating Cleveland, Milwaukee, and New Jersey consecutively, but none of these opponents would end up being in the playoffs. The Knicks provided an opportunity for the Celtics to make a statement about their regular season, and they did so in dramatic fashion.
Boston’s second half of the season was so good that fans believed a healthy Celtics team could make a Finals run, knocking off the vaunted Heat in the process. They weren’t far wrong (we’ll get to that). But regular season games like this one served multiple purposes: not only were they significant in terms of the season and Boston’s momentum going forward, but they were, well, fun. This was an inordinately fun game. The crowd was riled up, the ending was dramatic, and the results were satisfying.
Rondo’s proclivity for playing up to big games has become alternately one of the best and most frustrating parts of his game. This would be a significant pattern throughout the season. Rondo’s ability to play to the biggest stages is why his playoff PER (22.0) was so much higher than his regular season PER (17.5). It’s also why he can be incredibly frustrating. When the Celtics are playing the Raptors and Rondo has scored just six points against an obviously inferior point guard like Jose Calderon, I want to tear my hair out. When he scores 30 and dishes out 14 assists against the Heat, I want to name all of my future kids “Rajon.” He’s like that: intensely polarizing, even for the people who love him. He’s a kick in the nuts to statheads (like myself), and a boon to those who prefer “the eye-test” (absolutely not like myself). He’s also one of the best point guards in the NBA, which is evident to those who watch him on a nightly basis, and I, for one, am intensely glad that no trade ever materialized for him last year.
Here’s to another season with the most confusing player I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching.
Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.