Rondo is the game-changer

BOSTON -- For a while there, it looked like we were headed for a reprise of Cleveland, Game 4, 2010. That was the game Rajon Rondo so single-handedly destroyed the favored Cavs (29 points, 18 rebounds, 13 assists) that LeBron James said the Celtics guard was "dominating" the series and offered to guard him. (How did that work out, LBJ?)

It wasn't quite like that Tuesday night, but it's a good thing for the Celtics that No. 9 showed up with his Nicolas Cage game face. He got the Celtics off to a rollicking start -- they have been the running team in this series against the supposedly up-tempo Knicks -- and finished with 30 points (a playoff career high) to go along seven assists, four rebounds and a pair of steals.

He set the pace. It was an impossible one to maintain, sort of like Kim Smith in the Boston Marathon, who ran well ahead of the women's field before coming up lame at the 20th mile. But Rondo stayed the course, led the Celtics with eight points in another hectic fourth quarter, and Boston emerged (or, as Rondo more accurately described it, "escaped") with a 96-93 victory and a 2-0 lead over the Knicks.

Rondo was sensational in the first quarter, scoring 14 points. He went right into the teeth of what passes for the Knicks' transition defense, blowing by, over and around whoever happened to be in his way.

A little more than seven minutes into the game, the Celtics had 12 fast-break points -- or two more than they had in all of Game 1. Unfortunately for Boston, the easy transition baskets ended. The Celtics finished with 16 fast-break points.

Isn't that how it's supposed to go? Like, every game?

"I think I tried to attack in Game 1, just my layups were getting blocked,'' Rondo said. "And I didn't make a couple. [Tuesday], I stayed aggressive. I tried to expose them because I don't think they did a great job getting back in transition. But they made an adjustment and in the second half I tried to go to my guys, Paul, Ray and Kevin."

Do we need to note their last names? Didn't think so.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Rondo scored 22 of his 30 points on shots inside of five feet. He was 11-of-16 from that range and 2-of-7 from outside five feet (including one questionable three-pointer in the fourth quarter). He was only 2-of-7 from inside five feet in Game 1.

ESPN Stats also credited Rondo with 16 transition points. The NBA counts fast-break points and had the Celtics with a 16-4 advantage. In two games, covering 96 minutes, the Knicks have had a total of six fast-break points to the Celtics' 26.

This is not, unfortunately for the Celtics, a rotisserie game, however. Rondo got tired from all of his running in the first period and requested relief. Doc Rivers granted the request, sending in Delonte West with 3:59 left in the period.

Rivers loved what he saw in the first period. How could he not? "We talked about it,'' Rivers said, speaking of attacking the rim. "He did it. He was terrific."

But Rivers also understood that such a pace was unsustainable and, if continued, probably suicidal.

"It's physically hard to do that every night,'' he said. "You think about it: Rondo did it and then, with about five minutes left, he said, 'I need a blow.' He was dying. That's a hard job. Especially when they are playing you to drive, they're trying to force you to shoot, and your most effective way is penetration through trees. It's just hard."

But it's also how the Celtics must play. Rondo is a game-changer in those kinds of situations. He can take it to the basket, as he did in the first quarter. He can find the open man, as he did later. He even made four of his seven free throws, which has always been a sore spot and a reason, one has to think, why Rondo is not in more of an attack mode in the fourth quarter of close games. Do you realize that he averaged slightly less than one trip (two free throws) to the line per game this season?

"We've got to play with that attack nature throughout the whole game,'' Ray Allen said. "It's tough to stop a guy who's quick and attacks you at the basket and you've got great players around him. Watching the film, you see everything that Rondo had. We've got to always make sure he stays in that zone, where he's attacking that way."

Of course, it starts with rebounding, which is another reason why Rondo's guerrilla attacks in Game 2 came to an abrupt stop. The Celtics were crushed on the glass, surrendering an unthinkable 20 offensive rebounds. Sixteen of those came over the final three quarters.

And when the running stops, the execution has to take over. The Celtics get few bonus points here from Game 2. They were good enough, barely, to win the game. Rondo spoke for all concerned when he said, "We escaped another one tonight."

But when escaping is your default position, as it has been for the Celtics in these two games, who better than to have Rondo leading the way?

Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.