Commentary

The unofficial leader of the Celtics

Originally Published: May 9, 2010
By Chris Broussard | ESPN The Magazine

BOSTON -- The Big Three is a cool, if dull and unoriginal, nickname. So let's keep it. It's useful, reminding us that Boston has a trio of likely Hall of Famers who play with heart and guile and great skill.

But what's been hinted at for the past year has now become official. The near triple-double in last year's playoffs didn't do it. The All-Star berth this past February didn't, either.

But what's been happening in this series between the Celtics and the Cavaliers, particularly what happened Sunday in Game 4, has turned the whispers into a scream, the suggestions into this undeniable, airtight fact: The Big Three no longer has a supporting cast. It is the supporting cast.

The Boston Celtics are now Rajon Rondo's team.

Just like the Phoenix Suns belong to Steve Nash, the Utah Jazz to Deron Williams, and the Chicago Bulls to Derrick Rose, this proud, dynastic franchise is now led by a versatile, 24-year-old point guard who plays unlike anyone else in the NBA.

If you think that last line was mere hyperbole, check out what Rondo did Sunday in the Celtics' 97-87 victory over Cleveland that knotted this series at two games apiece. Outshining not only The Big Three, but the league's Big One, two-time MVP LeBron James, Rondo did something only Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson can claim.

He scored 29 points, grabbed 18 rebounds and gave out 13 assists (all game highs) to become only the third player to reach such gaudy totals in a playoff game. The 7-foot-1 Chamberlain (29 points, 36 rebounds, 13 assists) was the last to do it, way back in 1967, and the 6-5 Robertson, the only player ever to average a triple-double for a season, did it in 1963 (32 points, 19 rebounds, 13 assists).

Rondo's 6-1.

"To do what he does at his size, he could be one of the most unique point guards in the history of the NBA," said Cedric Maxwell, who played 11 seasons in the league and has been the color analyst for Celtics radio broadcasts since 1995. "He rebounds almost like Dennis Rodman rebounded, which means that before the ball hits the rim, he's already making his move. He anticipates the angles, almost like doing math. But while others guys are adding and subtracting, he's doing calculus.''

While the Cavs looked like fourth-graders trying to memorize their times tables, Rondo looked like Sir Isaac Newton on Sunday. His four offensive rebounds were one more than the entire Cavaliers team grabbed, and his 18 boards helped Boston gain a critical 47-33 advantage off the glass. Keep in mind that Cleveland was the best rebounding team in the NBA this season.

Seven of Rondo's rebounds came in the fourth quarter (the Cavaliers had six in the fourth), and none was bigger than the one he seized with 1:34 to play and the Celtics clinging to a five-point lead. Grabbing a Kevin Garnett miss while surrounded by Cleveland's Anderson Varejao, Antawn Jamison and Anthony Parker, Rondo tossed in a put-back layup that sealed the game.

"He was absolutely sensational tonight,'' Boston coach Doc Rivers said.

Rondo's been sensational throughout this series, averaging 21.8 points, 13 assists and 8.3 rebounds. But while his board work was the most eye-popping aspect of his Game 4 masterpiece, he obviously did much more. With the 6-6 Parker giving him seven to eight feet of space to try to keep him in front of him, Rondo sank a few jumpers -- and still blew by Parker for multiple layups and runners in the lane.

To keep the Cavs from quickly getting into their offense, he picked up Mo Williams full court. He passed up shots and made sure to get his teammates involved in the half court, and after grabbing several long rebounds off failed Cleveland jumpers, he ignited the fast break that changed the tone of the game. With Rondo making music in the open court, Boston outscored Cleveland 23-7 in fast-break points.

"He imposed his will on the game,'' Cavs coach Mike Brown said.

Late in the third, Rondo put James on a poster. Taking a pass from Glen Davis, who had made a steal, Rondo pushed the ball down the right side with James trailing. You could see James, who two minutes earlier had sent a Ray Allen shot flying over the Cavs bench like a Tim Lincecum fastball, timing his jump, waiting to smack Rondo's offering off the backboard like a boomerang.

But after raising the ball in his right hand as if going in for the layup, Rondo passed it behind his back to Tony Allen for an easy dunk.

"He's always chasing me down,'' a smiling Rondo said of James. "He's had a lot of Top 10 plays and blocks on my layups so I knew exactly on that play he was coming. I saw it out of the corner of my eye when I started to break. I had to sell it as if I was going to lay it up, and he jumped and I made the pass and Tony finished the play.''

Rondo, it seems, has even turned Williams, whose responsibilities for guarding him were mercifully taken away earlier in the series, into a fan.

"You go out and compete against a guy every day, but obviously you've got to be a fan of the game, and what we call in the urban world, you can't be a hater,'' said Williams, who struggled once again with 13 points on 3-of-9 shooting. "When a guy has a game like that, you've got to tip your hat to him."

Rondo's excellence once again carried the Celtics when their Big Three of Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce weren't quite in sync. Garnett and Allen each provided 18 points, but they combined for only 12 in the second half and none in the fourth. And Pierce continued to melt at James' feet, scoring just nine points to drop his series average to 11.8.

But with Rondo dominating (for lack of a stronger word) with his at-will penetration, the Celtics were in good hands. The raucous TD Garden crowd recognized as much and saluted their new leader with "M-V-P'' chants while Rondo canned two free throws with 17.8 seconds left.

Afterward, Rondo was still dishing assists to his teammates, heaping praise on 30-somethings Garnett, Allen and Pierce for opening things up for him on the floor.

"My numbers tonight were what they were, but we still go through the Big Three," he said. "They're the main focal point. That's why I'm able to get so many open looks and be so aggressive."

That's no longer true. But we understand why he said it. After all, a great point guard always takes care of his supporting cast.