The Celtics have always had a simple team philosophy about the playoffs — you never want to end up in a series where the undisputed best player on the floor is on the other team. Whether it's LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, you name it — if the alpha dog is staring you down, you're in trouble.
In Game 4 of their second-round playoff series against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday, the C's had no such problem.
The best player on the floor in Game 4, beyond the shadow of a scintilla of an iota of a speck of a shred of a doubt, was Rajon Rondo. And this was a game where the best player on the floor took over, singlehandedly willing his team to victory in a pivotal postseason game.
He finished with 29 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists, statistically one of the best games in NBA playoff history. Only Oscar Robertson (32 19, 13) and Wilt Chamberlain (29, 36, 13) have ever matched him in all three categories. It was one of those games where you just couldn't help but let your jaw drop to the ground in awe. He dominated the game from the opening tip to the final buzzer.
It wasn't his scoring, his passing or even his airtight defense that got most of the praise after Sunday's 97-87 Celtics win. It was the rebounding — when a 6-foot-1 guard takes over the game and beats LeBron and Shaquille O'Neal to every bounce, it's going to grab your attention. His 18 were not only a career high, but a shock to even his own teammates.
"I was looking up, and I was like, 'Man, I've only got six rebounds," Kendrick Perkins said. "But then I looked up again, and I was like, 'Shoot, Rondo's got 18!' He took them all."
It was incredible the way Rondo crashed the boards, no doubt about it.
"And passed it," coach Doc Rivers said. "And scored. I mean, he was absolutely sensational. Obviously what he is doing is absolutely unbelievable. The rebounding, the energy that he's playing with. You know, it's funny, the stat that doesn't show is his ball pressure. I thought that was the biggest part of the entire game. I thought that was the biggest difference because [the Cavs] didn't get into their stuff as quickly as they did in Game 3. And that allowed us to help and do other things. That was Rondo.
"To me, that might have been the hardest thing he had to do tonight. And we were concerned about that robbing him of his energy. And then to go out and do the rebounding and the passing and the scoring, it was just an amazing effort."
All the talk after Game 3, in which the Celtics fell behind early on Friday night and lost an ugly one at the TD Garden, was about being aggressive early. Setting the tone. Asserting your authority from the very beginning. On Friday night, it was LeBron and the Cavaliers who seized that opportunity.
Two days later, it was Rondo.
"It started with me," Rondo said. "Defense starts with me, so I tried to pick up full court as much as possible without tiring myself out and still being able to attack them at the end. The last couple days, Doc was preaching for me to be aggressive on the defensive end, picking up Mo Williams, picking up Delonte West, whoever brought the ball up the court. They picked up their aggressiveness on the defensive end in Game 3, so we tried to return that in Game 4."
You could see it in action. Every Celtic fast break began with Rondo making a big play. Whether he was hustling for a rebound, a loose ball or one of his two steals, it was his energetic defensive plays that changed the tone of the game from the very start.
What you're seeing is a Celtic identity crisis. This is a team that won a championship two years ago behind the strength of its Big Three — it was Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen that carried the men in green to their 17th banner in 2008.
They've had to adapt on the fly to Rondo's takeover. There's a new leader on this team.
Or is there?
"He's been the leader on this team the whole year," Perkins said of Rondo. "I think he's been the best player on this team the whole year. He's been the most consistent player on this team the whole year, too. And he's leading by example. He's not just talking, but he's walking, too. So he's doing a great job."
It's astounding, when you think about it. Rondo is all of 24 years, two months and 17 days old. He's the point guard of a team absolutely packed with veteran leaders — from the old Big Three, to Rasheed Wallace, to Michael Finley and on down the list. But it's the little baby-faced Rondo leading the way now.
"It's a little bit of a challenge, but there are guys here that respect me and what I do," Rondo said. "I'm sure I wouldn't be here if they didn't want me leading this team. I'm here for a reason — the guys trusted me, the staff trusted me, and the organization did. So I'm very confident in what I do."
Two years ago, the wise old men carried this team to a title. No longer.
"He's a point guard now that runs our team and has complete control of our team," Rivers said of Rondo. "We we won [the 2008 championship], he was still learning how to be a point guard. He was still trying to figure out how to help a team to win. Now we rely on him to win."
The Celtics will go as far as Rondo can take them. And if he can take them to two more wins, they'll have shocked the world and knocked off the mighty Cavaliers.
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