- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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BOSTON -- The most pressing concern for the Boston Celtics as they approached Game 4 of their Eastern Conference semifinals game with the Miami Heat was the damaged wing of their point guard. Would he be able to defend aggressively with one arm compromised? Could he avoid the inevitable traps designed to exploit his injury, and could he shoot the ball with any effectiveness?
The questions were in reference to Rajon Rondo, who was attempting to fight through the painful aftereffects of a dislocated left elbow, but they could have just as easily been directed toward backup Delonte West, who suffered a bruised left rotator cuff and was also battling debilitating pain.
Unlike Rondo, West happens to be left-handed. He dutifully iced his shoulder in the days and hours leading up to Monday's game, allowed the training staff to encase his shoulder in tape, then threw a compression sleeve on his arm and logged 30 minutes -- one minute shy of his season high on March 27 against Minnesota.
Just as he did in Game 3, West energized the second unit by forcing tempo, initiating ball movement and knocking down perimeter shots. Yet it was his stingy defense on Dwyane Wade in the fourth quarter that earned him the right to be on the floor in crunch time as part of Boston's "small ball" lineup.
The Delonte West on display Monday night was the one who prompted Doc Rivers to urge his boss, Danny Ainge, to welcome the troubled guard (who was convicted of weapons charges) back into the Boston fold. West has long been a Rivers favorite because of his toughness, versatility, timely shooting and commitment to the defensive end.
Yet an early-season suspension for sins of the previous season, a devastating broken wrist and then a sprained ankle prevented West from becoming the impact player Rivers had envisioned. Every time West showed signs of developing some rhythm, another injury felled him.
Rivers stuck with him and reaped the dividends in this Miami series.
"In the New York series, we had guys on a roll," West said. "They didn't need nothing from me. Doc told me he needed me to be Delonte in this series. I've tried to be the best impression of myself."
The vision for West was for him to serve as a hybrid guard -- a ball handler and distributor to spell Rondo on the rare occasions when he would reluctantly retreat to the bench for a rest and an able fill-in for Ray Allen at the 2-guard spot.
But even when he returned from injury, West's bad ankle prevented him from creating the lift he needed to drive up and shoot.
"Couldn't dunk neither," he reported.
He was a nonfactor through much of the Knicks series, at one point lamenting in an interview that he was trying to define his role, which appeared, in his mind, to be a "facilitator to get Baby [Glen Davis] and Jeff Green the ball."
Clearly, his role has been upgraded against the Heat. West is peaking at the right time, but it might be too late to make a difference. With the Celtics trailing 3-1 in the series, Wednesday's game could be the team's last. The starters looked fatigued in crunch time Monday. The bench continues to be a mixed bag.
Davis has been abominable from a rebounding, scoring and defensive standpoint (is there anything left?). Baby has lost his lift, and it's not hard to discern why. Let's just say his uniform fits a lot more snugly now than it did back in December when he was a Sixth Man of the Year candidate.
Green has exhibited more confidence and willingness to drive to the hole and/or take a perimeter shot. He has intermittently contributed decent defensive moments when guarding LeBron James.
West has emerged as the most consistent bench player from either team in this series. He is shooting a team-high 55.6 percent from the floor and 50 percent (7-14) from 3-point range. He has gone to the line six times, which is one more time than Big Baby and only two fewer than Kevin Garnett.
"It's about staying prepared," West explained. "This team has so much talent, but my job is to bring some energy. That might mean taking 10 shots one night and two shots the next."
Unlike Miami, which appears to have accepted that it must win almost solely on the strength of its Big Three, the Celtics need other players to contribute. Boston does not have the luxury of throwing Paul Pierce out on the floor for 50 minutes, which is how long LeBron played Monday night. Asking Ray Allen to be out there for 45 minutes, especially when he's chasing Wade around, simply is not a sound strategy. Rondo had a day off Tuesday to heal, but we all know his elbow won't be right again until his basketball activity ceases completely.
Although Rondo gutted it through for 38 minutes in Game 4, he was clearly laboring to push tempo and dish the ball to his teammates. When the Heat trapped and bumped him, you could feel the entire Garden contingent cringe.
Delonte West is no Rajon Rondo, but he knows how to run a team and clearly made it uncomfortable for Wade down the stretch. West picked Wade up with 7:46 left in regulation and held him scoreless until 2:01 of overtime, when Wade nailed a difficult fallaway with West within a whisker of him.
Wade still managed 28 points (on 8-of-18 shooting). You can bet Rivers will consider going to West sooner for help with that matchup in Game 5.
"He's by far one of the best players in the world," West declared. "One of the toughest I've ever guarded."
There has been a healthy measure of nostalgia surrounding this group of Celtics veterans, who know the end of their shelf life is fast approaching. Rondo is the bridge to the future. West, who is working on a one-year deal, would like to be one of the planks on that bridge. He is volatile and unpredictable and injury prone, but he plays hard, is fearless and desperately wants to repay Rivers and Ainge for their willingness to give him another chance.
The starting point guard undoubtedly will be hampered again Wednesday. The backup insists he's fine, adding, "No excuses over here."
Boston is out of excuses and nearly out of time. West isn't the only one who needs to bring his trademark energy to Game 5.
Unless the 30-somethings can reach back one more time for their "all-in" high-octane attack, as Garnett is fond of calling it, the season will be done and the point guards will have more time than they need -- or want -- to heal.
Jackie MacMullan, who has spent nearly 20 years as a beat writer and columnist in Boston, is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.
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