In previewing the Eastern Conference finals matchup between the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics, I had a really hard time trying to figure out ways the Celtics could win games. Here are the two I was able to come up with:
1. They'd stand a real good chance if they hit 60 percent of their shots from the floor, like they did on April 10;
2. Failing that (because it's really hard for an entire team to make three out of every five shots against air, let alone a top-four NBA defense), "for Boston to have any chance of scoring enough to beat Miami, Rondo must be ridiculous."
I think we can fairly call 44 points on 24 shots, 10 assists, eight rebounds and three steals with just three turnovers (seriously, THREE TURNOVERS) while playing 53 minutes — that's every second of all four quarters, plus overtime — in a must-win Eastern Conference finals game "ridiculous."
Of course, as you know, whether or not I think the Celtics "must" have won Game 2 to have any chance in this series, they didn't. They lost a "demoralizing" 115-111 overtime affair that saw Boston turn a 15-point lead into a seven-point deficit, then charge back to hold a five-point advantage with less than five minutes remaining, only to see it all go away. Boston didn't shoot 60 percent — just a tick under 50, in the final analysis — but they played something like their perfect game, got arguably the best individual performance of the Big Three/Four era, and it still wasn't enough.
But that doesn't mean we shouldn't remember that it was still freakin' something.
For starters, from a statistical perspective, it was pretty unique.
Basketball-Reference.com's Player Game Finder research tool only reaches back to the 1985-86 season, because the people at B-R are CLEARLY SLACKERS. According to its archives, only 10 players have scored at least 44 points, dished at least 10 assists and grabbed at least eight rebounds in an NBA game in the past 27 seasons. Larry Bird did it three times, Michael Jordan and LeBron James did it twice, and seven other players — Rondo, fellow point guards Michael Adams and Kenny Anderson, and All-Star wings Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Dwyane Wade. None of the others did it in the playoffs; there, Rondo stands alone.
More to the point, though, it was a proof of concept.
For years — not quite since he came into the league, because even as the point guard at the controls of Boston's 2007-08 title run, the second-year triggerman was considered more a caretaker than a true catalyst, but pretty much since his third campaign, and certainly after — the NBA world has dared to dream of a day when this seemingly alien collection of will, skill, savvy and determination could also routinely can a jumper. This, of course, is at least kind of unfair — Rondo's actually hit at a league-average-or-better clip on long 2-pointers in four of his six NBA seasons, according to Hoopdata's shot location statistics — but he's been spottier in the 10-to-15-foot range and, if nothing else, he often seems tentative when it comes to stepping into the jumper, like he's doing it primarily because he understands he has to force the defense to guard it and only secondarily as something he thinks will generate points.
On Wednesday night, though, Rondo stepped confidently into those long-range attempts from early on, making a 17-footer just one minute and 39 seconds into Game 2, and he never looked back. By the end of his 53-minute marathon, he'd hit 8 of 10 shots from between 16 and 23 feet away, as well as 2 for2 from 3-point range, according to Hoopdata's advanced box score, for a heretofore unheard-of 10-for-12 mark on jumpers.
Rondo's proficiency from distance put the slew of Miami defenders that Erik Spoelstra saw fit to throw at him — the "throw the kitchen sink" at him approach, the Heat coach called it — in precarious positions, and Rondo took advantage, getting to the rim 10 times for five buckets of his own, while also generating five assists for at-the-rim dimes off his penetration. All told, 64 of Boston's 111 points came directly off the hands of Rajon Rondo, and many of the rest owed at least a little something to the constant threat he presented. It's just as WEEI.com's Paul Flannery wrote after Game 2:
All these years we've wanted to know what would happen if Rondo finally had a jumpshot and for one game we got our answer: He's unguardable.
I'm no scout, but to my eyes, the full repertoire Rondo displayed Wednesday night seemed awful reminiscent of a masterful performance we saw just 24 hours prior from Tony Parker, a similarly styled slashing point guard who rebuilt a once-dodgy jumper, made the midrange game his best friend and torched the Oklahoma City Thunder for 34 points on 21 shots and eight assists with just two turnovers in 40 minutes of work on Tuesday night.
That virtuoso outing calls to mind two things: First, that in an age of attempting to slap a "best-or-worst thing ever" tag on everything, an iconic and age-old outing stays only as fresh as the next guy's highlights, and second, that while "there is no 'i' in 'team'" looks great on a needlepoint, remembering the individually brilliant is important.
We're probably going to forget how specifically amazing Tony Parker was in Game 2 in San Antonio because Tim Duncan's taller, because Manu Ginobili hit the shots at the end, because the Spurs as a collective were amazing and because the Spurs as a collective won. Similarly, we might forget just how insane Rondo was in Game 2 because the larger story is that Boston let a critical opportunity slip through its fingers, because LeBron James and Dwyane Wade narrowly escaped wearing goat horns because people tend to focus more on final-minute shots and missed free throws than brilliant offensive glass work, screen-setting in the 2-3 pick-and-roll or the ceaseless charge that turns a 15-point valley into a seven-point peak, and because the overarching "Is This The End For Boston?" narrative seems set to consume everything.
And that's OK, I guess — Big Things matter more than Little Things, and in the context of the narrative of this season and this postseason, the Spurs' unyielding march to perfection and the Celtics' stumble toward their particular finish line are bigger stories than the brilliant one-offs authored by Parker and Rondo. But just because it's worth appreciating all those other instruments at play, that doesn't mean we can't occasionally drop the sound out and focus on the solos. We should. They're great, and they matter, too.
Even if Rajon Rondo never does something this total or this beautiful again, now I know he can. I don't just think it; I know it. So do all of you. We're all richer for that. One more in Game 3, please.
Video via our friends at the National Basketball Association.