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Difficult Loss Overshadows Impressive Performance by Rondo

Last night will most likely stay infamous for the Celtics' overall collapse, as well as LeBron James's performance, despite a "bad" elbow. Yet as both of those events were unfolding, so was Rajon Rondo's practically impeccable evening. Was he perfect? Technically not. But he was easily the Celtics' best player on the floor, and after finishing with 27 points and 12 assists, he can be regarded as the primary reason why the Celtics built their early lead and maintained it for as long as they did. 

He brought with him to Cleveland the aggressive mindset these Celtics will no doubt need to employ as this series continues to unfold, by attacking the lane relentlessly, completely unafraid of the bodily harm that could have resulted, and on several occasions, actually appeared to. He consistently embodied the style of play his team as a whole will have to resort to if they want to win this series. It was a physical, tenacious brand of ball that, for the better part of the evening, the Cavaliers were incapable of dealing with. Before his painful third quarter eruption, Mo Williams appeared routinely helpless as Rondo zipped past him into the lane, and consistently beat him down the floor when fast break opportunities presented themselves. The tempo of the first half was defined by Rondo, and it completely favored what the Celtics were looking to do. 

The Celtics led 26-20 at the end of the first quarter, and between his nine points and five assists, Rondo had a direct hand in 19 of those 26 points (73 percent). And he wasn't done. Boston led 54-43 at the half, and after putting in 19 points and handing out eight assists, 35 of those 54 points had Rondo's stamp on them (64 percent). The Cavs tried sending help defenders Rondo's way as he tore down the lane, but Rondo's reckless abandonment often resulted in fouls on those Cavs, or buckets for Rondo, who unleashed a clever amount of craftiness in many of these scenarios. Take what he did with 3:49 left in the second quarter for example: He shot past Williams, stuck to the right side, noticed J.J. Hickson rotating over  to cut off his angle, and casually faded ever so slightly and floated the ball over Hickson's outstretched grasp and banked it in. Those tricks of his make it that much more difficult for help defense to be effective against him. 

Mo Williams was so helpless against Rondo that Cavaliers coach Mike Brown switched Anthony Parker onto him at the start of the second half, leaving Williams to deal with the taller Ray Allen. It was the old Jared Jeffries move: Stick someone taller and longer on Rondo to hopefully disrupt his style of play. For the better part of the third quarter, it failed to work. Rondo was as determined as ever, getting himself going in the third with a scoop shot on the left side with 9:28 to go. He followed that up on the Celtics' next possession by skipping into the lane and unleashing a vicious crossover that left Parker glued to the floor, before eventually getting to the hole and drawing the fourth foul on Shaquille O'Neal. 

And here came perhaps the most important component of Rondo's noteworthy evening: Free throw shooting. He shot 14 of them, and made 12, good for 85.7 percent - an unprecedented feat for the Celtics' typically charity-stripe challenged point guard. This performance came on the heels of Rondo knocking down 83 percent of his free throws in five games against the Miami Heat. It's not just the fact that he's staying aggressive and putting some of the Cavs in foul trouble, which is pretty much all that can be said when he's missing them. When he fails to convert he's ultimately not scoring, which fails to either widen or tighten the gap depending on how  the game is playing out. But with Rondo knocking them down the way he was last night, it brings a unique component to his game that the Cavaliers cannot effectively combat. If Cleveland cannot stop Rondo's penetration - and Mike Brown said before the series that they basically can't - then its only hope is for Rondo to miss his free throws upon drawing fouls. 

And as the Cavs attempted to whittle away at the Celtics' double-digit lead in the third quarter, Rondo helped the Celtics build it right back up by finding Ray Allen for back-to-back three-point buckets halfway through the third frame, restoring order at 69-58. 

Unfortunately, a minute later, all that the Celtics had worked so hard for, would come undone. Williams got out in the open court with 5:16 left and slammed it home, which served as the first two of 10 straight points for Williams. And along with those 10 points came the Cavaliers, who assumed control fully after Rondo was called for his fourth foul with 2:55 left in the third, trying to pry a rebound away from Antawn Jamison in front of Cleveland's bench. LeBron put in a layup at the third quarter horn and gave the Cavs a 79-78 lead. It was evident that the Celtics' 11-point lead had evaporated, yet it was still unknown that the successful style of play the Celtics had utilized for two and a half quarters- with Rondo serving as the spearhead - had gone with it. 

In the fourth quarter, rather than continuing to let Rondo do his thing, the ball was handled primarily by the likes of Paul Pierce, who took seven of his team's 18 fourth-quarter shots. Pierce had settled into a promising first quarter groove, but ended up shooting just 5-17 for the evening. The offense became stagnant and jump shot ridden, and the Cavaliers were poised to take advantage. Rondo did not attempt a single field goal in the fourth quarter, and managed just three free throws over the final 12 minutes. The workhorse behind the Celtics' earlier success had been tamed, and part of the blame has to be put on the Celtics themselves, who failed to keep Rondo at the head of the attack. 

Pierce played the pivotal role of the hero in Game 3 against the Miami Heat, and, despite the percentages, putting the ball in his hands to win that game was the right move. But last night, Rondo was the guy, and needed the ball in the fourth quarter when the Celtics should have been re-establishing the style of play that had garnered so much success early on. It failed to happen and you know the rest: The Cavs took control, ultimately won, and now hold a 1-0 lead in this series. A winnable game was lost by the Celtics, and hopefully the price of learning their lesson won't end up being too high.

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