At the 4:16 mark of the fourth quarter in tonight's game seven, which was marred by characteristically ugly and uneven play from both teams involved, Paul Pierce sent legions of Celtics fans into fits of rage and despair when he fouled out by committing a (somewhat questionable) offensive foul on Thadeus Young. At the time, the Celtics were nursing a lead that had dwindled in the past few minutes. They needed a closer -- somebody who would take over and will the team to victory, somebody who would take the ball in his hands and say, "There's no way we're going to lose this game."
Without Pierce, who was going to be that guy?
For over a decade now, that player for the Boston Celtics has been Paul Pierce. In the fourth quarter of practically every close game in which Pierce has participated since he established himself as a star very early in his career, there has been no question who the Celtics would depend on to carry the team, take the big shots, make the big plays -- win or lose, the Celtics would ride Paul Pierce to their last breath.
This has remained the case even though in recent years there has been a legitimate question as to whether Paul Pierce is indeed still the best player on this Celtics team. Many times in the past few seasons the Celtics have given fans cause to moan in misery as they squander fourth quarter leads by going over and over to the utterly familiar and utterly predictable (but often unstoppable) Pierce Iso Offense. This has happened even when Paul's well-established All-Star teammates are having great games offensively. But they don't complain, or expect any different. Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett both came to the Celtics in 2007 understanding that this was still going to be Pierce's team, win or lose.
The emergence of Rajon Rondo in the past few seasons as a legitimate star player, who at times (if all too infrequently) has looked like one of the best 10 players on this planet Earth, capable of absolutely dominating a game in ways perhaps no other player ever has before, has changed the dynamic for the Celtics in late game situations. The style of play that works for the Celtics for most of the game, more often than not, is not Pierce-centric, but altogether very Rondo-centric. Rondo sets the tempo, he gets everybody involved, he finds guys where they have the best chance to score. He is the "straw that stirs the drink." Yet even in games where Rondo is filling the stat sheet in every area, including scoring in bunches, the team has often fallen back on Pierce in late game situations. This has been compounded by Rondo's inconsistent willingness to assert himself.
Jackie MacMullen gets to the heart of this issue very nicely, saying of Rondo:
"He is still a work in progress, still a player whose leadership is evolving. It hasn't been easy learning to establish his voice in the shadows of three first-ballot Hall of Famers. At alternate times, Rondo has craved, then rejected their advice. He has tried to emulate them, then has turned around and ignored them. He is the little brother trying to establish his pecking order in the family."
In short, for most of Rondo's young career, he has been playing in the shadow of the Big 3. Even when he has been shining, rallying the team to victory as only he can, turning into a star when everybody expected him to be little more than what Mario Chalmers has been to the Heat -- a solid role player -- he has still deferred to the Big 3 in the moments when star play has been called for. Despite the fact that many now consider Rondo the team's best player, he has seemed very reluctant at times to act like the team's true leader.
So tonight, when Pierce fouled out with four minutes left in a game seven that was still very much up for grabs, with a trip to the conference finals on the line, I suspect that very few people thought that Rondo was going to call his own number to ensure that his team won. It's true, the team was basically out of options without Pierce on the floor. KG was exhausted, Ray was severely hobbled, despite hitting a couple of clutch threes after spending all game building a house out of bricks, and Bass is not a guy for whom you call plays in crunch time. It was basically either going to be Rondo, or nobody.
But we've been in situations like this before, and Rondo has deferred. He's shown himself to be much more like Kevin Garnett than Paul Pierce -- reluctant to be the go-to guy who forgets about everybody else and just looks for his own offense. Sometimes he and KG will play hot potato in the corner with the ball until the shot clock has nearly run out as Paul and Ray get stuck in double coverage on the weak side, resulting in a bad, rushed, contested shot that clanks off the side of the rim.
I certainly did not expect what happened next in this game. Rondo scored the next nine Celtics points, hitting a deep two pointer and a three from well beyond the line as well as a tough layup off a screen, and a handful of free throws (he was perfect from the field and, perhaps more surprisingly, the free throw line). Rondo played those last few minutes as though his conscious, neurotic, mercurial mind shut off and his cold, heartless, calculating, ruthlessly competitive basketball mind took over. He turned into Super-Rondo, the guy we've only ever gotten to see for short stretches of time, but who is breathtaking nonetheless.
In retrospect, I find that stretch particularly fascinating, not only because Rondo just carved himself yet another hallowed spot in Celtics' lore, but because with Pierce leaving the game and Ray and KG both limited, I think those few minutes of crunch time represent what we might perhaps see from Rondo much more often once the Big 3 are gone -- when the older brothers have moved on, and this team is, for better or for worse, placed completely and without question into Rondo's hands. No more big brother Pierce standing behind him, wordlessly expecting the ball on every possession once the fourth quarter starts. Just a few million sets of eyes, including those of all his teammates, and every opponent, fixed squarely on him, waiting to see what he will do.
What can we hope to get from Rondo once he knows that night in and night out, he is the only one the Celtics can depend on? I don't know the answer to that question. Anybody who tells you they do is either crazy or a liar; those of us who have spent the last five years watching Rondo know that he is nothing if not horribly, spectacularly unpredictable -- even to his coach, and possibly himself. But perhaps those few glorious minutes of basically flawless (though admittedly flukey) play from Rondo are a window into that future. If they are, the next five to ten years with the Celtics firmly placed in Rondo's capable, incredible hands may be filled with as many brilliant fourth quarter performances as the ones we've been treated to during Pierce's time here.
All we can do is wait -- and watch.