In Game 2, he could not hit the side of a barn, missing all six shots he took. In Game 3, he couldn't buy an assist, failing to record a single dish. In Game 4, he had a more even performance, tallying 15 points on 5-for-8 shooting to go along with 6 assists, 5 rebounds, and 4 turnovers. But it all went for naught in an 11-point loss.
Rajon Rondo was struggling to make a significant impact for the Celtics in their best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Last night, however, Rondo was the "difference-maker" to his teammates and the "X-factor" to his opponents.
With the series tied at 2-2, Rondo responded in Game 5 by helping the Celtics hold serve at TD Banknorth Garden, 96-89. Was it the most important game of his two-year career?
"Yeah, I think so, but I hope it's not the last important game of my career," Rondo said, casting a hopeful eye toward Game 6 in Cleveland tomorrow night. "Definitely, Game 5 tonight was a big game for us."
It was even bigger for Rondo. He submitted a career playoff performance: 20 points on 9-for-15 shooting, including huge back-to-back 3-pointers in the second quarter, to go along with 13 assists, 2 rebounds, 2 blocked shots, 2 steals, and just 1 turnover in 42 minutes of yeoman work.
"He was the X-factor," said LeBron James, who had a game-high 35 points. "You know, 20 and 13 and just 1 turnover, it speaks a lot. Without Rondo tonight, it would've been a much tougher game for them to win. He was definitely the player of the game tonight."
The impact of Rondo's perimeter shooting was certainly felt by the Cavaliers in the second quarter when he buried the 3-pointers as he helped fuel a 14-3 rally that enabled the Celtics to whittle a 14-point deficit to 3 (46-43) by intermission.
"Those were shots that when they go in, you love them," said coach Doc Rivers. "They probably gave him confidence. He had a great feel for the game tonight. I thought he made good decisions."
One he made was to pull the trigger on the first of his treys. With four seconds on the shot clock, Rondo knew what he had to do when the ball got whipped out to him on the perimeter.
"I was trying to line the ball up and get the seams right," he said. "The second one, I was just feeling confident, we were on the fast break, and Ray [Allen] had seen me, and I just took the shot."
With those two flicks of his wrist, Rondo halved the Cavaliers' 12-point lead with 1:56 left before halftime.
"Rondo's threes were big for us," said Kevin Garnett. "Obviously, when you get into an offensive flow, it is because you are playing pretty good defense. I think when we are playing in a nice flow defensively, man, our offense, it just rolls."
Rondo knew that if the Celtics were to have any success offensively, it must stem from defense.
"My first mind-set going into the game was defense," he said. "I wanted to turn the ball, like I'd been saying, and pressure the ball and make it hard for Delonte [West] to make those passes to Wally [Szczerbiak]. I started the game 0 for 3, but I just wanted to stay confident and continue to shoot the ball."
And shoot he did. But Rondo wasn't content to rely on the quick jumper. This time, he was determined to make the Cavaliers pay by attacking the basket.
"Even though I hit two threes, I didn't want to settle," he said. "The second half, I wanted to stay aggressive and attack the rim, attack their bigs and get them in foul trouble, and also create shots for my teammates."
Michael Vega can be reached at email@example.com.