It was not supposed to be this close.
Boston was not supposed to be this good; Miami, not this vulnerable.
Each team is headed in a decidedly different direction after this season. The Heat, with LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, all of whom are 30 or younger, seemed destined for a dynasty. The Celtics' big three of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce -- none of whom is younger than 34 -- are well aware that this is probably going to be their last shot a title; front office has made it very clear it will not re-sign Allen and possibly KG as well.
And yet, four games through what has already been a grueling Eastern Conference finals, Miami and Boston are dead even at two games apiece. The three key statistics in basketball -- scoring, shooting percentage and rebounding -- are almost exactly even as well.
No player on this Celtics roster -- and that's considering the stellar playoff performances of the ageless Garnett -- is as important right now to Boston's success as Rajon Rondo. For a Boston team that ranked 23rd this season in offensive pace (the number of possessions a team uses per game), it has found remarkable success in speeding up its attack against Miami. The Heat, of course, is perhaps the NBA's most lethal fast-break team, but don't tell that to Rondo; the unmistakeable floor general is shoving the ball down their throats like he's in a Formula One car on race day. His Game 4 effort of 15 points, 15 assists and just three turnovers in 47 minutes broke down the Miami defense and anchored Boston's 93-91 OT victory.
While the Heat managed to win the actual fast-break point differential 14-7, Rondo's ability to initiate his offense early in the shot clock is what ultimately made the difference. Nearly every time down the floor, he pushed the tempo; with the Heat defense unsettled, Rondo probed and prodded his way through the lane, searching for a trailing Garnett or a shooter waiting on the perimeter. Doc Rivers has found something in Boston's secondary offensive attack; it's not a true fast-break offense, but it still relies on tempo, of which Rondo has developed a mastery.
"Them complaining and crying to the referees in transition," he told ESPN at halftime, in reference to what holes he was exploiting in the Heat defense.
For Boston to pull off the miraculous and actually win this series, it will have to continue to get Herculean efforts from its maestro point guard. Without the injured Avery Bradley to share ball-handling and creative duties, Rondo is the only Celtic who can consistently break the defense down. In Game 4, Boston shot 21 percent worse and was minus-6 with him on the bench (per ESPN Stats & Info).
Rondo is still just 26 years old and remains an enigma to much of the league. For all his genius of darting drives into the paint and whipping no-look passes, let us not forget that GM Danny Ainge was dangling him as a trade for then-New Orleans Hornet Chris Paul before this season began. But this is his team now, and really, it has been for quite some time. He said to reporters that after Pierce fouled out: "I told Kevin (Garnett), it's time. We have to take the game over. At that particular time in the game, when your leading scorer goes out, you have to step up and make plays and that's what we did as a team." Rondo scored the go-ahead basket with 2:34 left and hounded a visibly frustrated Wade for most of the extra session.
Simply put, the Celtics, with their triumvirate of Hall of Famers, will only go as far as Rondo can take them.
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