Whether or not he's said it in so many words, Rajon Rondo intends on making these NBA Finals his coming-out party.
After all the breakout performances, all the triple-doubles, and all the games he's carried the Celtics to victory, he's ready for this chance. He's got an opportunity to present himself to the world as a champion.
That's why Kobe Bryant's taking it upon himself to stop him.
With the older, slower Derek Fisher assigned to chase around the older, slower Ray Allen on defense, Kobe has assumed the toughest defensive assignment in the Finals. Slowing down the energetic Rondo has been arguably the most difficult task in all these NBA playoffs, but through one game, Kobe has been fairly nonchalant about containing the Celtics' floor leader.
"It was OK," Bryant said after Game 1. "It's pretty much what we expected. We just tried to keep him out of the lane as much as possible."
While Kobe may be downplaying it, what we're in for is a clash of egos. It's the 14-year veteran and four-time NBA champion Bryant against the upstart Rondo. And for the Celtics, the challenge will be setting aside egos and focusing on smart basketball. There's a lot more to the game than outplaying Kobe the individual, even when the Lakers' star is at his best.
"I thought he did a terrific job," Boston coach Doc Rivers said of Bryant. "I thought we fell back into trying to score on him and go at him instead of running the offense. I thought overall, offensively, we didn't move the ball much."
Rondo shot 6-of-14 and finished with 13 points, but he quickly learned that, against these Lakers, he can't take over the game himself.
"They did a good job of collapsing when I did get a chance to get inside the paint," Rondo said. "They're very long, [Pau] Gasol and [Andrew] Bynum. And [Derek] Fisher's very clever, he took a charge on me one time. So they did a great job mixing it up."
The Lakers are making a team effort out of trying to stop Rondo. They're doing everything they can to make sure he can't get going in transition, and that of course starts with taking care of the basketball, not giving him any mistakes to capitalize on.
"I thought a big part of it was not having a layup line going for Rondo," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "Just little things — steals in the backcourt and transition baskets, steals and outlet passes, things that he's capable of doing. I thought we were careful around him and respectful of what he can do."
"I don't think we had a lot of fast-break points," the Celtics' guard said. "They did a great job of getting down on the fast break. And it seems like every time down, we took the ball out of the net."
Perhaps that's the Celtics' biggest problem. If they can't get any rebounds or takeaways, the running game will never get going. The Lakers can neutralize Rondo without even trying.
"It was impossible for us to get any offensive rhythm," said Rivers. "They either got an offensive rebound, they scored or they shot a free throw. There wasn't a lot of times that we could get the ball to Rondo in the open court."
Rondo is the biggest reason the Celtics are here. If he can't elevate his game for the Finals, he'll also be the biggest reason they come up short.