Rajon Rondo has never played in an NBA playoff game. Sure, it was loud at TD Banknorth Garden and opposing arenas in the regular season, but the playoffs can be rock concert loud, making it difficult to hear the teammate standing next to you. Every game is televised nationally, some even worldwide. And if the 22-year-old thought the spotlight was bright on him as the Celtics' point guard going into the season, it's going to be blazing in the playoffs.
So, Rondo's got to be nervous, right?
"Nah," the stoic-faced Rondo said. "I'm trying to approach it as just another game. It's more meaningful, but I'm not putting pressure on myself. It's just basketball."
Rondo, Leon Powe, Glen Davis, and Gabe Pruitt are about to embark on their first playoff experience. The Eastern Conference's top seed will host the eighth-seeded Hawks in Game 1 of a best-of-seven first-round series tomorrow night at TD Banknorth Garden.
Powe said he has spoken to his teammates and former Celtics great and coach Tommy Heinsohn about the playoffs. Davis said his veteran teammates have told him to expect a "different atmosphere" in the playoffs, and he has talked to Heinsohn, too.
"It's something you've been looking forward to since you were little," Powe said. "I used to watch the playoffs on TV and it used to be so exciting. Just to be able to play in it is an honor and a blessing to me."
Said Davis: "I'm not nervous. This is what it's all about. Playoff atmosphere. This is where great players are made."
No Celtic - other than probably All-Stars Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen - will face more pressure than Rondo. As a team, there is a lot of pressure for the Celtics, who won an NBA-best 66 games in the regular season, to win a 17th championship.
Potential point guard matchups for Rondo could include Atlanta's Mike Bibby, Washington's Gilbert Arenas, Detroit's Chauncey Billups, and a great Western Conference floor general if Boston makes it to the Finals. When things get tight in the fourth quarter, Rondo will know that veterans Sam Cassell and Eddie House will be itching to come in, too.
In essence, Rondo's every move will be watched, even though he more than exceeded expectations this season.
"He's going to be the one that will probably be thrust into that spotlight the most because I think most of the people in America don't really know him," Allen said. "They've seen a lot of [myself, Garnett, and Pierce] for many years. But people will get to really know him now because we'll be in the playoffs."
Said Rondo: "I'm going to just go out there and play with heart. My mentality has to be right. I'm going to go home and study the game, my opponent, and [the opposing] team. I've got to be able to handle whatever is thrown at me."
Rondo averaged 10.6 points, 5.1 assists, 4.2 rebounds, and 1.7 steals in 29.9 minutes per game in 77 contests during the regular season. He also played on the Sophomore team in the Rookie Challenge during All-Star Weekend and is a candidate for the NBA's Most Improved Player Award. He also isn't afraid of saying anything to his teammates, usually has a very calm demeanor on the floor, has the ability to take tough hits (he played high school football), and can occasionally be fiery when he is not pleased with something.
Bibby will be the first point guard thrown at Rondo.
Bibby averaged 14.1 points, 6.5 assists, and 1.1 steals, and had a 36.9 3-point percentage in 33 games with Atlanta after being dealt from Sacramento. The 10-year veteran has 51 games of postseason experience while playing with Sacramento, including the 2002 Western Conference finals. He also averaged 15 points, 8 assists, and 6 rebounds in two games as a Hawk against Boston.
"I look at it every night as a tough challenge, especially after 82 [regular-season] games night in and night out," Rondo said. "Mike Bibby played exceptionally well in the playoffs with Sacramento . . . He's a smart player, he draws tough fouls, and he makes big shots. I just have to practice on staying solid and making him work on the other end, as well."
Celtics coach Doc Rivers vividly recalls his surprising start for the Hawks in his first playoff game, a 105-89 loss at Milwaukee April 17, 1984. Cassell remembers playing "terrible" off the bench for the Rockets during his first playoff game, a 114-104 win over Portland April 29, 1994.
Good or bad, Rondo's spotlighted first playoff memory arrives tomorrow night.
"I don't really think about it much," he said. "There is a lot of pressure on me going into the playoffs. You hear about it. I hear things. But like I said, it's part of basketball. It is what it is. Some people rise to the occasion. Some people don't."
Marc J. Spears can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org