I was at Fenway Park and could hear the whispers that something incredible was occurring. And no it wasn’t happening on the field in front of me, where the Red Sox were muddling their way through a season in the aftermath of a chicken and beer fiasco.
The updates came through the cell phones around the ballpark of something much more fascinating that grabbed the attention of those in the stands.
As he has done in the national spotlight throughout his career, Rajon Rondo captivated his audience with a monster showing that is up there with some of the best performances in NBA playoff history. That’s not an overstatement.
What Rondo did that night as the Celtics fell 115-111 in overtime is still staggering now: a career-high 44 points on 16-of-24 shooting, 10 assists, 8 rebounds, 3 steals and he never came off the floor, either, playing all 53 minutes. Only 17 players in NBA history have accomplished scoring at least 40 points and dishing out 10 assists while playing a minimum of 40 minutes in a playoff game, per basketball reference and SB Nation’s Mike Prada.
“[Rondo] was absolutely phenomenal,” said then Celtics coach Doc Rivers after the game. “He put the whole team on his shoulders. It’s tough to have him play that way and not win the game, honestly, because he did basically everything right.”
It’s one of the greatest playoff performances ever assembled, but yet, it seems to have gotten lost in the annals of Celtics history. I’ve heard more about the jump shot P.J. Brown hit four years earlier in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers or Isaiah Thomas’s 53-point outburst — a remarkable feat in its own right — versus the Washington Wizards a few years ago. But Rondo’s other-worldly display just seems to have been lost in the shuffle of those other well-known moments.
Much of that probably has to do with it coming in a loss and the Celtics losing the series in seven games as well, which takes some shine off what Rondo put together. Rondo’s performance seemingly had everything in it, as he turned his jump shooting weakness into a strength for almost an hour of game time to go along with his adept playmaking. The night had its share of controversy, too, coming at a critical juncture of the contest with the game’s leading man at the center of it. The script writes itself, except Rondo and the Celtics would prefer an alternate ending.
Rondo was unequivocally the best player on the court for that game. In my opinion, it’s the best performance the four-time NBA All-Star guard has delivered in his career, outweighing any of his 42 triple-doubles or outings when he became stat obsessed an put up impressive numbers.
During quarantine is the best time to take a trip back down memory lane and relive Rondo’s historic showing that stacks up to other legendary Celtics playoff performances, even though it isn’t remembered in that context.
The 2012 playoffs were all about Boston’s Big Three using their waning powers to try to get back to the NBA Finals. The Celtics had all but deemed the lockout shortened regular season near meaningless and finished fourth in the Eastern Conference at 37-29.
And while the aging Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen regrouped for a final run through the playoffs together — Allen left Boston in the offseason and infamously signed with Miami — it was Rondo’s 17.3 points, 11.9 assists and 6.7 rebounds per game that postseason fueling the Celtics.
Once Boston dispatched the Atlanta Hawks and the Philadelphia 76ers, it met the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals and there was plenty of history there, not even with just the Celtics distaste for LeBron James. The year prior, Dwyane Wade inexplicably pulled down Rondo with the ball yards away as Rondo dislocated his elbow and played the remainder of that second-round series with basically one arm.
Despite not having home-court advantage, the Celtics with all their experience felt like a real threat to prevent the Heat from getting back to the NBA Finals for a second straight year. But the Heat grabbed Game 1, 93-79, before Rondo almost single-handedly swung the pendulum back into Boston’s favor with his Game 2 effort.
Rondo caught fire early and his torch never extinguished as he scored 16 points in the opening 15 minutes. But it was the way Rondo put the ball in the hoop that was eye-catching.
For his career, Rondo had a G-rated jumper as it didn’t put a scare into defenders, but he was an aggressive ball-handler who routinely attacked the paint due to his inability to hit shots from the perimeter with consistency. In the 2011-12 regular season, Rondo attempted nearly two-thirds of all his shots from inside the paint, per NBA stats.
But for Game 2, it was like Rondo stole some shooting potion from Allen and continually knocked down jumpers the Heat were all too willing to give him. Five of Rondo’s first six baskets came on jump shots as he finished the game with a 10-of-12 showing on attempts from beyond 15 feet, according to Chris Forsberg. Mario Chalmers and Wade routinely went underneath picks and sagged so far off Rondo that at times it felt like they were unaware Rondo was playing in the same game as them.
With Rondo’s jumpers falling at an accelerated rate, he also showcased the command he had over the offense. Rondo was so good at waiting for the play to develop at times before making the right pass or pushing hard in transition, drawing defenders and finding an open teammate.
While the Celtics and Heat went back and forth, Rondo continued to torch whatever defense the Heat tried against him. Chalmers had wobbly newborn giraffe legs trying to figure out whether Rondo would pull up for a jumper or penetrate. Wade didn’t have much success, either. Joel Anthony one time went out to defend Rondo. Seriously? Rondo blew by Anthony for a layup.
When the Heat hedged picks aggressively, Rondo, in complete command, threw it up to Garnett as he rolled to the hoop for easy buckets. Rondo got points off a steal, too, as in retrospect, it’s clear to see Rondo bursting with confidence, even with his jump shot.
“I have no idea, I’ll be honest,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra following the contest on how to defend Rondo. “We’ve tried almost everything with him. The conventional wisdom [says] he’s got to beat you with the jump shot [or] beat you by not getting all the other guys going. They only had 15 assists, and you would never think that he would have that kind of a monster game.
“What it speaks to is his competitiveness — he’s a competitor. He’s a basketball player. Whatever the team needs, he’s going to do.”
With just four minutes left in regulation and the Celtics holding onto a slim 3-point lead, Pierce drove through the lane and kicked the ball out to a wide open Rondo from just inside the arc on the right wing. And for Rondo there’s no hesitation, no thinking about how ineffective his jumper had been in the past. Nothing except the ball swishing through the net, again.
Rondo’s confidence goes into overdrive when he defends James on the final possession of regulation. Rondo did this on a occasion during his nine seasons in Boston when the Celtics matched up with James, meeting James alone well beyond the arc with his defensive posture and stare looking like he’s throwing expletives in James’s direction, daring him to take advantage of the mismatch. And with Rondo, at 6-foot-1, it’s most certainly a mismatch for the physically imposing James, but James folds his hand and takes a low-percentage, fadeaway jumper that clangs off the rim.
Rondo’s brilliance continues into overtime, where he scores his most impressive bucket of the game with the roles reversed and James defending him. James plays for the pass and Rondo awarely beats him off the dribble, glides past Wade and finishes on the other side of the rim for the first of two leads he gave the Celtics in the extra frame.
Rondo scored Boston’s first six points of overtime and had a chance to put the Celtics ahead again with just over 90 seconds remaining, and this is where the controversy comes into play that changed the trajectory of how this performance is remembered.
Rondo’s already put his stamp on this game, but looked poised to sprinkle the finishing touches on his stellar performance and an exciting Boston win, except he didn’t. Well, except the referees didn’t let him.
With 1:40 left, the Celtics used a pick from Garnett to isolate Rondo on Udonis Haslem and as Rondo had done all game when an opposing big man comes out to guard him, he attacks. A crossover dribble gets him in front of Haslem and all that’s standing in-between Rondo and the basket is his nemesis in Wade.
Rondo contorts his body, eludes Wade and can’t finish the layup as he hits the floor, clutching his face. On the other end, Haslem gets an uncontested dunk, momentum swings significantly as the Celtics never pulled even after that sequence.
The Celtics took a timeout after Haslem’s slam and Rondo’s irate. It’s evident why as commentators Jeff Van Gundy and Mike Breen see what occurred immediately on the replays. As Rondo tried to avoid Wade, Wade’s hand crashes down on Rondo’s face. A clear foul. A clear trip to the free-throw line should happen for Rondo, who hit 10-of-12 attempts from the charity stripe in the game. But Rondo doesn’t get any of that as no whistle blew for the infraction.
“It was obvious, [but] I really can’t comment on that particular play,” said Rondo in his postgame press conference.
Allen was more forthright, “We all thought he got hit. I’ll say it.”
The no call on that pivotal play magnified the refereeing in the game. James Capers Jr., Kenny Mauer and Tom Washington whistled Boston for 33 fouls, which led to three Celtics fouling out, compared to 18 on Miami as the Heat ended up with a 47-29 free-throw advantage.
Granted, while the non-call had a big impact, the Celtics still had time to recover and couldn’t. The damage was done. Rondo’s masterful performance, in which he drained a bevy of shots from the perimeter, came down to a one-foot layup he couldn’t make as he got hit in the face. It wasn’t his fault at all.
Rondo netted 12 of his 44 points in overtime and sank back-to-back 3-pointers in the final seconds — Rondo only hit five treys over the course of the regular season — that only changed the final score and not the final outcome.
When Rondo walked off toward the locker room after the game-ending buzzer, it was the first time he had come off the AmericanAirlines floor all game. Never subbed out once in 53 minutes. He left it all out on the floor. You couldn’t ask for anything more and yet, the performance felt somewhat unsatisfying due to the feelings that take hold after an overtime loss, especially in the playoffs.
“[Rondo] played his heart out, he carried the load for us offensively, he shot the ball, he did everything we could possibly ask for in him,” Pierce said. “You just hate to see an effort like that really go to waste.”
It seems unfathomable that a player going the distance in a game, let alone one that included an extra session, would occur in this day and age with load management dominating the brain.
It’s a performance that once it was over should have been bestowed with that instant classic label and now should be played on local Boston sports syndicates during this COVID-19 pandemic as one of those all-time great playoff performances that doesn’t slip out of memory.
But time has a funny way of distorting things. Some things get remembered, and Boston fans have quite a few moments to remember, while others settle into the deep recesses of our brains and simply fade away. I’m glad this game popped back into mine and I could wash the cobwebs off what Rondo achieved that night.
The performance is worthy of all the high acclaim and should not be forgotten. It’s up to us, the fans, to ensure that. Rondo already did his part.