BOSTON -- It wasn't Willis Reed in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals. And it wasn't Paul Pierce in Game 1 of the 2008 Finals. But when Rajon Rondo strode back onto the TD Garden floor in the final minutes of the third quarter of Saturday's Game 3 of an Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Miami Heat, his dislocated elbow popped back into place by the Boston Celtics' medical staff, the legend of the spunky, young point guard grew and he took his spot comfortably amid the gutsiest playoff efforts in NBA history,
Just about everyone in the building had assumed the worst, particularly if they caught a glance of a cringe-worthy replay, after Rondo's left elbow bent awkwardly as he crashed to the floor scrambling for a loose ball with Dwyane Wade five minutes into that third frame. A season-ending injury seemingly meant a similar demise for Boston's championship-or-bust aspirations, regardless of whether the Celtics could hold on in Game 3.
But there was Rondo, back in the time it takes most to get a pretzel at the concession stands, lingering around the huddle as if he'd simply stubbed a toe or jammed a finger.
Rondo essentially played the entire fourth quarter with one arm (the ailing left arm simply along for the ride) and chipped in a pair of layups and an assist in that final frame as Boston emerged with a potentially series-swinging 97-81 triumph.
The Heat lead the series, two games to one, but Rondo's return might have given Boston the sort of emotional charge it so desperately needed to make this a series again. Quite the reversal of fortunes from when he first hit the parquet.
"I knew right away something was wrong when I went down, but thank God for Kevin [Garnett], because I was having trouble breathing," said Rondo, unaware most Celtics fans were exhibiting similar symptoms. "I was worried about my elbow, but I was having trouble breathing. I just kept hearing him tell me to breathe. Everything else took care of itself."
Rondo spent the early portion of Saturday's game fighting through lingering back issues. Little did he know that'd be the least of his concerns. After handing out three assists to fuel Boston's 16-4 run out of the gates in the second half -- a stretch that erased a two-point halftime deficit and put the Celtics out front by double digits -- Rondo got tangled chasing a loose ball with Wade and his left elbow buckled as he tried to brace himself while spilling to the floor with 7:05 remaining.
Rondo could be seen telling team trainer Eddie Lacerte and team physician Dr. Brian McKeon that it was his elbow that was in pain. Soon after, he was grimacing his way to the locker room, aided by the medical staff, and Celtics coach Doc Rivers figured that might be the last time he'd see Rondo on the court, maybe for the season.
But McKeon worked some of his magic in the trainer's room.
"The first report was 'dislocated, out,' basically for good," said Rivers. "And nearly 30 seconds later, I was in the huddle and saw Rondo walk by me. And it looked like he was going to play. And so I had to grab Eddie [because] the last he heard, it was [out], too.
"Give Dr. McKeon credit. He told [Rondo] to go out there and see what he can do … I don't know what that means for the next games, but it was good to see him on the floor."
Rondo finished with six points and 11 assists over 35:19, fairly pedestrian by his playoff standards (which includes six triple-doubles over the past three postseasons). The emotional charge he gave his teammates was immeasurable.
"When he came back, I said, 'Well, I definitely have no excuse now,'" said backup guard Delonte West, who suffered a shoulder bruise late in the first half before being thrust into increased duty when Rondo went down in the third frame. "Honestly, when I saw it, I thought he broke his elbow. Close up, it looked as though the bone came out."
Garnett, the star of the night after registering 28 points (on 13-of-20 shooting) and 18 rebounds, marvels at the pain tolerance of his point guard.
"I've seen [Rondo] play through some [injuries]," said Garnett. "I'm not going to go through the list of injuries that you all are unaware of; I'm not going to put him out there like that, but I've seen him play through some horrific injuries. All of us sort of looked at each other like, 'What is he doing out here? Is he being smart right now?'
"When he came in, it was just typical Rondo. Shorty is a really tough, young individual, and I don't know what he's going to be like when he's 35, but right now he's playing through a lot. He's showing a lot of heart, a lot of grit. We see it. That doesn't go unspoken or unseen. We see he's out there giving his full effort. We're following that lead."
Following it right back into a series in which many were rushing to slam the window on Boston's Big Three. Rondo, dislocated elbow and all, helped the elder statesmen jam their fingers in the window yet again.
But there's work to be done and Rivers expressed pessimism about whether Rondo will be able to play in Monday's Game 4 and beyond.
"It's a major concern," said Rivers. "We've seen people play with broken feet and stuff like that. Honestly, moving forward, we'll have to see. It's going to be interesting, I'll put it that way."
But even the Heat's superstars, including LeBron James, expressed hope that Rondo would be OK moving forward.
Said Wade, after stressing he's not a dirty player and that the injury was not intentional, "That's a tough injury to come back from that fast; it shows a lot as a leader of that team. … We want them to be whole, so hopefully Monday he is there and he is ready to go."
Be careful what you wish for. The Celtics need Rondo on the floor to win this series. And if a dislocated elbow can't keep him off, what will?
"I'm sure you guys can see that he's going to play next game already," said Jermaine O'Neal. "If there's any doubt out there [from] anybody, you should just look at this game because if he came back for this game, then you know he's going to play the next game. He's one of the tougher point guards in this league and he wants to win. And that's the first thing I asked him when he came back, I asked him, 'Are you sure that you want to be back out here?' And he said, 'Look, we don't have any games to give,' and that's Rondo."
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.