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Disclaimer time: Rajon Rondo didn't erase all doubts or eliminate all questions last night. He didn't necessarily strike fear in the hearts of point guards around the NBA. This piece doesn't purport to imply that any of that sort of thing was the case.
But that's basketball -- and life. It's nearly impossible to achieve unilateral long-term success in one effort, especially the first one.
But in his maiden playoff outing, the Celtics' point guard did make at least one definitive statement: He didn't come this far to back down.
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We knew that one way or the other, the three stars that are Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen would come to play sooner or later. Right from the start, all three did what they've been doing all season: They fed the guy with the hot hand (Pierce early, Allen in the third quarter, Garnett whenever he wanted), fed off each other's energy and balanced each other on the floor.
What we didn't know was how the second-year floor general would respond to the pressure of the postseason, but what we learned in the final stages of the fourth quarter might have been more important than all else.
Undoubtedly, Rondo was fantastic throughout the contest last night. The numbers don't lie: He went 6-for-9 from the field, finished with 15 points, 9 assists 6 boards and no turnovers, and he completely shut down Mike Bibby, who shot just 2-for-10 for the game. A very impressive effort to say the least. He effectively controlled the Celtics' offense and looked splendid defensively.
But it was that set of four third-quarter possessions that seemed to provide the best insight into just how far this man has come over the course of one season.
With the Celts leading by 12 and just outside of two minutes to play in the third quarter, Rondo got the ball on the left baseline for a mid-range jumper late in the shot clock...and promptly shot the ball completely over the rim, hitting no part of the basket apparatus. Zero. Air ball.
Several months ago, that would have been the end. At least for a while. The next possession would have involved a quick pass to one of the head honchos and Rondo clearing out of the way. If the ball did come back to him, he certainly wasn't going to be looking to shoot it. This probably would have been the case for several possessions.
Not anymore. One Kendrick Perkins block later, the Celts flew back down the floor, and Rondo's next chance came sooner than it ever would have back at the beginning of the season. He couldn't have been more ready. The point guard stepped confidently into a 21-footer. No hesitation. Pure stroke. Bucket.
A possession later, Raj wasn't done. This time, he seemed to hesitate on the same 21-footer he had just hit, but as it turned out, this was only so he could ball-fake and make a quick array of dribble moves in order to get himself a look from 18 feet, which he drained. Suddenly the lead was 16. And after a sweet fall-away shot in the paint from the same perpetrator the next time down, it was 18 heading into the game's final quarter.
If there is one factor that is going to be absolutely huge for Rajon Rondo throughout the postseason, it is confidence. Confidence to run the offense. Confidence to say no to those demanding the ball around him. Confidence to not back down from any opponent, no matter how big a deal he is. And perhaps most critically with regard to the self-esteem, confidence to take his shot.
Last night, Raj showed just how far he has come with the confidence in that shot of his.
It's been a pleasure to watch that development thus far.
And as a fan of this green team, it's even more of a pleasure to consider what it means for the rest of Rondo's game if he continues to have the confidence in that shot that he does right now.