The Celtics built a five-point lead a couple of minutes into the final frame on Tuesday night, but the Heat came roaring back to seize the edge and briefly control of the game. That momentum only seemed to heighten when Dwyane Wade came up with an emphatic block on Brandon Bass at the rim that sent the ball soaring toward the rafters.
But in stepped Rondo — the Celtics' floor general, game-changer and, as we're seeing more and more, clutch performer.
Rondo hustled over to the loose ball and out-leaped LeBron James — who stands seven inches taller than the Celtics point guard — to tip it to a wide open Mickael Pietrus in the corner. Pietrus drained a 3-pointer and cut Miami's lead to three with six minutes to play.
At the time, the play seemed huge. In hindsight, it was even more monstrous than we probably imagined.
After Kevin Garnett buried a 21-foot jumper with 10:10 to play to give the Celtics a 70-65 lead, the Heat answered with a 13-2 run. Miami's 78-72 lead was hardly insurmountable, but it was apparent the Heat were on the verge of throwing a stranglehold on the game — and perhaps the series in the process. Wade's block had the potential to be a nail in the coffin, especially if the Heat could parlay the big play into a basket on the other end to further increase their growing lead.
But Rondo, faced with one of those 50/50 loose ball situations that so frequently impact the outcome of a game, never gave up on the play. He turned a potential Miami knockout blow into a staggering counterpunch. The Heat went from having a six-point lead and the ball to needing a basket just to maintain the momentum they had begun to establish.
Neither team made a field goal for more than a minute before Rondo dropped in a hook shot from five feet to cut Miami's lead to one. From there, it was a dogfight, with the Celtics outlasting the Heat. But it was clear that Rondo's hustle and Pietrus' sharpshooting midway through the fourth completely changed the complexion of the game.
If Rondo took a different route to that ball, attempted to secure the rock rather than tip it, or Pietrus threw up a clunker, the Heat would have maintained complete control as the two teams headed down the stretch. Instead, hustle led to results (a basket), which helped lead to more important results (a win). And that Game 5 win could lead to the ultimate result (a series victory).
Rondo will likely entertain us again with nifty passes, eye-popping thefts and improbable buckets in Game 6. And Pietrus will probably drop in a few shots and bring the energy we're so accustomed to seeing from him. But when push comes to shove, it's those less glorious moments that define a champion, and one play in Game 5 ensured the Celtics still have a great chance of becoming just that.