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Time to move on from the Rondo-robbery

“I guarantee you right now, they’re distracted, our team, in the locker room. But we have to get it out of us and move on.”
–Doc Rivers, after the Celtics lost Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals to the Heat in overtime, 115-111

Celtics fans should heed the words of the coach. Let it out. Your team was the victim of brazen highway robbery on South Beach last night. What should have gone down as one of the all-time great one-man acts in playoff history was unceremoniously ripped from the grasp of Rajon Rondo. Indeed, the non-call on Dwyane Wade’s face-hack of Rondo was quite possibly more foul than the play itself.

But this is not the time to lament the Rondo-robbery, or Paul Pierce fouling out on a questionable call, or LeBron James being whistled for all of two fouls while defending an attacking Pierce all night, or James taking nearly as many free throws (24) as the entire Celtics team (29), or the Heat being the beneficiaries of a 47-29 edge at the line, or Greg rondo2Stiemsma picking up four fouls in five minutes … simply for being Greg Stiemsma. I’m out of breath.

No, as Rivers wisely pointed out, Game 2 was not the end of the line, and while it helps to let the disbelief and anger flow in the moment, it’s necessary to quickly put a lid on it and trudge forward.

With the consensus headline around the country on Thursday morning some variation of, Celtics give Heat best shot, still lose, I say fair enough. Yes, the Celtics produced arguably their best effort – particularly at the offensive end – of the postseason, but they were forced to play with one hand tied behind their back.

The Celtics have cause for optimism going forward, though, because unless David Stern wants the conspiracy theories to start flying on the Kings-Lakers 2002 level, the officiating, ahem, “situation” will be rectified as this series drags on, you can bet Tim Donaghy’s right pinkie on it.

As for James and Wade, what’s yet to be rectified is their closing capabilities in tight games. Let’s go to the tape:

Exhibit A: Celtics leading, 94-91, 2:18 left. Shane Battier drains a three to tie the game. On the next trip down, Mickael Pietrus commits a bad foul on LeBron, who hits two free throws to put Miami back on top, 96-94. The Heat get a stop, and with the Celtics clamping down on defense, Wade dishes to Udonis Haslem, who sinks an 18-footer from the baseline to extend the lead to 98-94.

Exhibit B: After a Boston timeout results in a Rondo-to-Garnett lob with 1:05 left to make it a two-point game, Wade drives in and draws Pierce’s sixth foul on a circus layup attempt. With 47 seconds left and Pierce out, Wade can essentially seal the game at the charity stripe. He bricks the first free throw, makes the second. 99-96. A Ray Allen trey knots the game at 99 with 34 seconds left.

Exhibit C: James misses a layup with 20 seconds left, gets his own rebound, and misses a 21-foot jumper at the buzzer with Rondo guarding him. Overtime.

Exhibit D: James misses two free throws to begin overtime. Wade misses one on a potential three-point play with 3:32 left that keeps the game tied. Then, following the Rondo-robbery, the Heat open up a seven-point lead with 18 seconds left, yet the Celtics manage to slice the deficit to three with two seconds remaining thanks to a pair of pure-grit Rondo threes. Wade goes to the line and promptly misses the first free throw before rattling home the second.

So for those scoring at home, Battier and Haslem had Miami’s two biggest field goals at the end of regulation, and James whiffed on a pair of potential game-winners. Compounding that, James and Wade combined to clank five of 12 free throws beginning with 47 seconds left in regulation.

This is nothing new for James and Wade – be it the missing of crunch-time free throws or game-deciding shots. Apart from the playoff series between the two teams last year, when James shook the Celtics monkey off his back with a trio of devastating closes, the Heat’s superstar tandem has consistently wilted in decisive moments – be it the regular season or the NBA Finals. Of course, the Heat win a ton, but most of the time they’ve already run a team out of the building when the clock is ticking down.

But this isn’t last year. Barring a redux of Wade taking out Rondo in Game 3, Boston’s greatest weapon will be healthy for the remainder of the series, which is to say the games will continue to be close-fought wars.

Time to soldier on, everyone. You know the Celtics will.

All signs to NBA Finals read ‘Rondo’

He is perplexing, maddening, awe-inspiring. Sometimes all on the same play. His basketball wits are befitting of a savant, his control of the reins of a proud team self-proclaimed. His ability to elicit a mind-blown, What was he possibly thinking? after his worst and greatest moments alike is incomparable.

If we could see the court through his eyes, it would be like trying to look at the Matrix: endless strings of numbers and characters in code. It is for this reason that he so fascinates and infuriates us, three first-ballot Hall of Famers and one of the game’s great coaches included.

On Saturday night in a Game 7 against a team for which he had no respect, he spent the first 43 minutes and change doing a formidable job of authoring the last rites of the Big Three era. He was disengaged, careless, and at times – in the case of missing point-blank layups – just plain bad.

It didn’t matter that it was Game 7, for he was Rajon Rondo and they were the Philadelphia 76ers, a cute and lively young bunch that he had used to entertain himself for the first five games, like a cat with a ball of yarn, rondobefore yawning and deciding before Game 6 he no longer fancied them. From the beginning of that contest through the aforementioned first 43 minutes of Game 7, he shot 26 percent from the floor and committed 11 turnovers.

Game 7 was all kinds of ugly, but it was a game the Celtics grabbed by the throat with a 10-2 run to start and maintained control of throughout. Gino may not have been dancing on the jumbotron, but everyone in the house knew the outcome; that is, until the 4:16 mark of the fourth quarter when, with the Celtics leading by three, Paul Pierce took a pass from Rondo on the perimeter, drove and collided with Thaddeus Young for his sixth foul. A few minutes earlier, a Rondo turnover had necessitated Pierce committing his fifth foul to prevent Andre Iguodala from having an uncontested layup.

Pierce screamed in frustration. The Garden hushed. Things had gotten real, so Rondo activated his “on” switch.

“I felt I was part of the reason he fouled out,” Rondo said after the game. “I had two bad turnovers. I felt somewhat responsible for it.”

What he did next is why every Celtics fan still has reason to believe Banner No. 18 is within reach. A baseline drive to extend the lead to 73-68. A combined 50 feet of rainbow jumpers for a total of five points, followed by four free throws in as many attempts. Nothing but nylon on each of the six releases. Game. Blouses.

The thing about Rondo, I think, is he not only believes he’s the smartest and best player in the world, but that it’s actually not even close. It’s the reason he’s alternated between clashing with and revering his three elder teammates from Day 1, the reason he’s stepped to Kobe, called out LeBron and Wade. It’s the reason a handful of his masterpieces have come against the Lakers and Heat, and why he often needs to be jolted to life against the likes of Philly – even in a Game 7.

It’s the reason that, despite the established gap between the teams, the Celtics undeniably wanted the Heat more than the other way around. They may not have won a title in four years, but every time the Celtics take the court in the postseason, they do so with the swagger and heart of a champion, and the cold drive of vengeance-seekers.

They’ve lost three elimination games in this era, and the one time it wasn’t in a Game 7 was last spring, when Rondo had his elbow dislocated, courtesy of Wade. The Heat won that second-round series in five games, and celebrated as if they had been coronated. Miami may say they expect the path to the Finals to go through Boston, but that was all supposed to have ended last year. The Heat believed they ended it, ended this incarnation of the Celtics, and you can’t really blame them.

The Celtics, on the other hand, have long believed it would have all gone differently had Rondo not gone down. Rondo knows it would have.

All the talk leading up to the 2012 Eastern Conference finals has been about all the things the Celtics must do to simply have a chance against Miami. Garnett must dominate the battle of the bigs, Bosh or no Bosh. Pierce must battle LeBron to a stalemate a few times. Allen must find some bounce in his ailing ankles, or at least some semblance of his jumper. Bass must … the bench must … etc.

Little, however, has been made of the fact that the Heat only came alive against Indiana after LeBron and Wade raised their collective games to a level previously unheard of. So how about this: In order for the Heat to beat the Celtics, LeBron and Wade must each continue to drop 30-plus a night. Udonis Haslem must consistently hit 15-foot jumpers. Mike Miller and Shane Battier must shoot 40 percent from the beyond the arc on wide open looks. Erik Spoelstra must win a two-minute coaching battle with Doc Rivers. If that happens, consider the Celtics’ caps tipped.

The reality is both teams are hurting, and neither is without its flaws.

Back to the vengeance-seeking. Because Pierce, Allen and Garnett came together so late in their careers, and because of the immediate success they enjoyed, there’s been a bittersweet element to their time together. The combination of missing each other’s primes with leaving what they perceive to be multiple titles on the table once together has rendered them bitter and scornful.

In that respect, Rondo has always been the outlier, the young gun who has the drive to win, but not the ticking clock to keep the firing burning. On those occasions when he’s “engaged,” the Celtics are damned near impossible to beat. An engaged Rondo was sighted off and on against the Hawks and 76ers. What we have never seen is a vengeance-seeking Rondo. If that guy shows up, the Celtics will end the Heat’s season.