He stutter-stepped, crossed over, tried an in-and-out dribble and then crossed over again, losing the ball as he transferred the ball from his left hand to his right.
The clock expired with the Celtics failing to get off a shot and missing an opportunity to close out their first-round playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks. None of the Hawks players reacted at first, which was strange considering they had just staved off elimination. They were probably just surprised. Judging by how Rondo had played in the second half up to that moment, even the Hawks probably assumed he would come up with something on the decisive final possession.
The final image of the Celtics’ 87-86 loss, which sent the series back to Boston for Game 6 on Thursday, failed to do justice to Rondo’s performance. The point guard took control for a reeling Celtics squad, dragging them back into the game when their defense was struggling and their captain, Paul Pierce, was hobbling.
“I feel awful that the game ended the way it ended, because I thought Rondo willed us back into the game,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “The end of the third quarter, in that little stretch, he gave us life again.”
A nine-second span late in the third quarter — or as Rivers referred to it, “that little stretch” — encapsulated Rondo’s night in a way the final play did not.
The Celtics were stuck in a drought, during which they scored one basket in a five-minute span and fell behind by 10 points, when Allen missed a long 3-pointer. Rondo dashed down the lane, and in one motion nabbed the miss and finger-rolled the ball into the hoop. As he jogged downcourt, he looked back to see Josh Smith tossing a lazy inbounds pass. Rondo wheeled, picked off the pass and knocked down a long jumper.
Four points. Nine seconds. It was not quite Reggie Miller material, but it energized the Celtics and momentarily stunned the Hawks. Al Horford was called for an offensive foul on Atlanta’s next possession, and although Rondo followed by missing a deep three, Ryan Hollins tracked down the offensive rebound and found Rondo for a runner to cut the Celtics’ deficit to four points.
In that sequence, the player Kevin Garnett has called the Celtics’ “black lion” basically declared, “Ready to form… Voltron!”
Rondo formed the head and the Celtics tied the game two minutes into the fourth quarter on a lob pass from Rondo to Hollins. They took their first lead since the final minute of the first half when Rondo dropped home a floater, and he then dished to Ray Allen for a 3-pointer that may have had the Celtics looking forward to a really, really long weekend.
Even after the Hawks came back to take a seven-point lead, Rondo and the Celtics continued to push. They pulled back within a point with 10 seconds left, leading to the anticlimactic final play. Yet that play featured more Rondo heroics as well. The Hawks held a one-point lead and were inbounding the ball with the Celtics poised to foul. So intent were the Hawks on getting the ball in the hands of Joe Johnson, their best shooter, they called timeout once when Johnson was double-teamed rather than pass to one of their two open players. On the Hawks’ second inbounds attempt, Rondo read Smith’s pass again and intercepted it. Had the Celtics not been out of timeouts, the last play might have gone differently, but instead it ended with Rondo blanketed by Horford.
Seldom does a point guard turn the ball over on the final, clutch possession and still receive praise from his coach. One play could not cancel out Rondo’s strong spurt.
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