When Rajon Rondo started defending Lebron James, Lawrence Frank showed the same reaction I did.
"We can't do this!" he shouted.
Yet the Celtics did it. And it worked. Though Rondo looked like an eyelash Lebron could brush away, the "Rondo on Lebron" tactic worked to the tune of a 35-18 third quarter. "The matchup made no sense," admitted Doc Rivers. But it lifted the Celtics to another level. Seeing their fearless point guard battling a human freight train who outweighed him by 100 pounds, Rondo's teammates rallied around him. (ESPN Boston)
"I actually thought it was great," Celtics center Kendrick Perkins said. "We know what Rondo is capable of doing. He turned it up another notch. I've never seen anybody make LeBron turn his back to the basket. He didn't really want to put it on the ground around him. I thought that was huge. When he picked [James] up, the energy just picked up and the guys kind of backed him up after that."
"Whenever you see Rondo doing that, we call that pressing up," Garnett said of Rondo's ball pressure. "When he's pressing up like that, it just totally ignites the defense. I not only come up, Ray gets a little more aggressive, Perk is aggressive, Paul [Pierce] is aggressive -- it totally sets the tone. He definitely sets that and now we have something to say: 'Hey look, this is what we're doing, let's continue to press on.'"
Giving "Rondo on Lebron" all the credit for the great quarter -- or even most of the credit -- would be wrong. Rondo didn't defend Lebron every play, and, in fact, Boston had already begun the half a 7-0 run before Rondo started attaching himself to Lebron's hip. But the correct narrative still gives Rondo the lion's share of the credit. The energy he played with, his willingness to scrap, and his constant motion on both ends of the court completely changed the game. Rondo led, and his team followed.
Even before Rondo began implanting himself in Lebron's jock strap, the C's point guard was everywhere. He earned a trip to the line on Boston's first possession. Found Perkins for a hook shot on their second. Finished an and-one two plays later, when he beat everyone in transition and gave Zydrunas Ilgauaskas the European Two-step. Chased a loose ball into Miami's backcourt, scampering past Dwyane Wade in the process. Rondo was locked in, he was making basketball easy by playing hard, and he was frustrating the Miami Heat.
Chris Bosh committed an offensive foul, and Lebron James held the ball for a second; Rondo ran over to rip the ball out of his hands (but, alas, Lebron dropped it before Rondo could do so). The Heat huddled as a team, even though it wasn't a timeout; Rondo walked into the huddle to see what they were talking about, drawing a few elbows from Miami players. He was annoying and he was a pest, but most importantly Rondo was energetic. He brought the Celtics life.
On many nights, Kevin Garnett presses the Celtics' power button. He's the one who brings them to another level, by banging his chest or screaming senselessly, or hedging a screen with the utmost precision. But Sunday, with the Celtics lacking energy at halftime, Rivers looked at his point guard. The Celtics needed a boost, and Rivers asked Rondo -- not Garnett or anyone else -- to give them one. Rivers didn't necessarily want Rondo guarding Lebron James in the full court, but when he saw the lift it gave the Celtics, Rivers ignored Lawrence Frank's warnings.
The "Rondo on Lebron" strategy won't work every game (heck, the argument can -- and has, by very intelligent people -- been made that it didn't even work Sunday). But to say the tactic didn't work is to ignore its defibrillator effect.
"Rondo just willed the game in a lot of ways," Doc Rivers told the Boston Herald.
Boston's often considered a tough team. When you think about their toughness, you think about Perkins' scowl. Or Garnett's refusal to back down. Or Pierce playing through injuries. Or Glen Davis taking a charge. Or Shaq enforcing his "no layups" rule with a hip check in the lane. But on Sunday, with the C's needing someone to dig in and point the way, they followed Rondo into battle.
Toughness comes in an assortment of packages. One such package stands 6'1" tall, weighs 171 pounds, and wears the number nine on his chest.