With seven minutes left in the third quarter of Game 3 at the TD Garden, the Celtics saw their lives flashing before their eyes. Everything — the game, the series, and possibly the entire Big Three era in Boston — was slipping away.
Rajon Rondo went down hard, clutching his left elbow in pain after a collision with Heat guard Dwyane Wade. And with him fell the Celtics' chances of a comeback from down 0-2, and their quest for an 18th championship banner.
Then, minutes later, he was back.
As it turns out, staying out of this game was never an option.
"Nah," Rondo said after Game 3, an astounding 97-81 win for the Celtics on their home floor. "My adrenaline was too high. I felt the crowd's energy, my teammates were playing well, and [Delonte West] was doing a great job. I just wanted to play and be a part of it."
Shockingly, he was.
Rondo came back to play the fourth quarter with his left arm taped up. He could hardly use it. He was a one-armed point guard for much of the fourth, running around and directing the offense with his right arm doing double duty. He dribbled with one hand, fired one-armed passes, and just kept battling for a Celtics team that held on to preserve a double-digit victory over the Heat.
At halftime, the Celtics trailed 46-44 and appeared headed for an insurmountable 3-0 deficit in the series. Then, in the second half, despite an unfathomable amount of adversity — a bruised left shoulder for Delonte West, continued soreness for Paul Pierce and Shaquille O'Neal, and then finally Rondo — the C's just kept fighting. There was no holding them back.
"That was a championship-caliber response," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "There's no other way to put it. They came out and played extremely hard. They played harder than us, and they played more efficiently than us."
Rondo's performance epitomized the Celtics' effort against the Heat in Game 3. Seemingly everything was going against them, from the injury bug to the officiating to the relentless performance from Wade offensively. They had to overcome all of it to win.
But the Celtics fed off of Rondo's inspired comeback. They refused to die. Their fiery 25-year-old point guard wouldn't let them.
"It shocked me that he was out there, because they said he wasn't going to play," C's coach Doc Rivers said. "But once he walked out, it really didn't surprise me. We've got a bunch of guys like that — just ballers. Guys who like playing basketball. They just play, and that's what he did."
The Celtics already had a decent lead when Rondo went down — they were up 60-50 after five minutes of the second half. But once Rondo left and West checked in in his place, the C's took it to another level. They strung together three quick stops, Kevin Garnett knocked down three shots over the next few minutes, and the Boston lead grew from 10 to 14.
"Clearly, that got everyone excited," Rivers said. "The only thing I had to say when that whole thing happened was composure, don't change the way you're playing. We've got the lead, and we're playing the right way. Don't let any of this stuff distract you.
"I was the most proud of that. Yeah, it was awesome to see him back out on the floor, but at the end of the day, it was great to see our team play."
Then Rondo came back, and the Celtics just kept pushing. They led by as much as 18 in the fourth quarter, running away with a resounding win on their home floor.
The Celtics are back in this series. They're not letting anything stop them.
"It was pretty painful," Rondo said of his elbow. "But what makes it feel better is that we got the win."
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