By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 10, 2010; D03
BOSTON -- One of the most poorly kept secrets of this season has been Rajon Rondo's emergence as the best player on the Boston Celtics. Rondo, a slight but speedy player with an unorthodox game, had his doubters during the Celtics' championship run in 2008 but in less than two years, he has already trumped a former league most valuable player in Kevin Garnett, a former NBA Finals MVP in Paul Pierce and another perennial all-star in Ray Allen.
And, there is no way the Celtics are tied with the Cleveland Cavaliers at two games apiece in their best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series without him.
The separation between Rondo and the rest of his teammates began to show as he made his first all-star appearance this season but it was never more apparent that on Sunday night, when the fourth-year point guard channeled Celtics legends and had a performance in which he scored like Larry Bird, rebounded like Bill Russell and handed out assists like Bob Cousy.
"He was absolutely sensational," Celtics Coach Doc Rivers said of Rondo, who had 29 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists in nearly 47 minutes to lead the Celtics to a 97-87 victory at TD Garden and was serenaded with chants of "MVP" as he shot free throws in the closing seconds.
Rondo joins a short list of players who had at least 29 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists in a game: Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson. And for the first time this series, Cleveland's LeBron James had to settle for being the second-best player on the floor. Afterward, Rondo still deferred to Garnett, Allen and Pierce.
"I'm just trying to become a better leader. My numbers tonight were what they were, but we still go through the Big Three; they're the main focal point," Rondo said. "That's why I'm able to get so many open looks and be so aggressive."
"It's a little bit of a challenge," Rondo said of running an offense built around that trio, "But they are guys that respect me and what I do. I'm sure I wouldn't be here if they didn't want me leading this team. So, I'm very confident in what I do."
Rondo helped the Celtics bounce back from a humiliating home loss two nights before, when the Cavaliers trounced them, 124-95, and the fans booed them. In a game that essentially represented any hope of a possibly upsetting the top-seeded Cavaliers, the Celtics played with more energy and hustle, as they beat Cleveland in second-chance points, 13-0, and in fast-break points, 23-7.
Garnett and Allen both added 18 points, but Rondo tracked down seemingly every loose ball, found his teammates for shots that even they didn't expect to get. Generously listed at 6 feet 1, Rondo finished with more rebounds than the other four Celtics starters combined and had more offensive rebounds (four) than the entire Cavaliers team (three).
"He's got a great nose for the basketball," Cavaliers Coach Mike Brown said. "He did impose his will on the game."
Rondo was on the trading block last summer, with the Celtics' president of basketball operations, Danny Ainge, upset over his work habits. Ainge held on, wisely, and signed him to a five-year, $55 million extension that already looks like a bargain.
James had a virtuoso performance in Game 3, as he had 38 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists as the Cavaliers destroyed the Celtics. But after scoring 21 points in the first quarter of that game, James was held to just 22 for the entire game on Sunday as he appeared less engaged. He failed to attack the basket, settling for long jumpers or repeatedly leaping to make passes, even though Allen and Pierce collected fouls guarding him most of the afternoon. James didn't score the final 5 minutes 37 seconds of the game.
Shaquille O'Neal had his best game of these playoffs as he scored 17 points, muscling his way inside for dunks and layups, and kept the Celtics' big men in foul trouble. But the game turned toward Boston when O'Neal picked up his fifth foul at the start of the fourth quarter. O'Neal never returned to the game and, upset in the locker room afterward, left the arena without speaking with reporters.
"Shaq played extremely well," James said, "and I was kind of surprised not to see him back on the floor the whole fourth quarter. They definitely turned it around after that point."
With O'Neal sitting, the Celtics scored the next eight points, all from reserves Tony Allen (15 points) and Glen Davis, who helped Boston's bench outscore the Cavaliers' second unit, 23-11. Despite not having James at his best, the Cavaliers were within 86-84 when Anderson Varejao had a three-point play to cap a 10-0 fourth-quarter run. Varejao added another free throw to bring the Cavaliers within three, but Rondo thwarted the run when he found Pierce cutting to the basket for a dunk that pushed the Celtics' lead to five. Then, Rondo sneaked between Antawn Jamison (14 points) and Varejao to get another rebound and dropped a floater that gave Boston a 92-85 lead and all but secured the win.
"The kid wants it, he wants it bad," Garnett said. "He makes things so easy, to be honest. This game is just a stitch in his maturity. It's a great win for us but overall, this is a hell of a stat line."