Celtics 128, Suns 108

Rondo a running theme for Celtics

Victory fueled by his career-high 32

By Frank Dell'Apa
Globe Staff / February 23, 2009
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PHOENIX - The Phoenix Suns reverted to their running ways after firing coach Terry Porter last week. The change in style produced three high-scoring victories but, yesterday, played into the hands of the Celtics' Rajon Rondo.

Rondo scored a career-high 32 points in leading the Celtics to a 128-108 victory on his 23d birthday.

The Celtics turned the game into a runaway in the final quarter, breaking their season-high point total by 2 despite performing without Kevin Garnett (right knee strain), who will miss his second successive game at Denver tonight.

Boston started slowly, then responded to coach Doc Rivers's admonitions and followed the lead of Rondo and Ray Allen (31 points). The Suns had scored 140-plus points in three straight games (two vs. the Clippers and against Oklahoma City) and started the game quickly, taking an 8-point lead.

Rivers called a 20-second timeout to deliver a loud wake-up call to the Celtics, who seemed several steps slow after having arrived at US Airways Center at about 10:30 a.m., two hours before tipoff.

The Celtics started jogging but soon got into the running spirit as Rondo went 5 for 5 and the Celtics were 13 for 16 in taking a 38-33 first-quarter lead. In the opening half, Kendrick Perkins was matched against Shaquille O'Neal, but the Celtics found success with a more mobile lineup, with 6-foot-9-inch Brian Scalabrine their tallest player.

Rondo surpassed his career high for points (26 against New York Dec. 21) 3:02 into the second half. The Suns got within 9 on Matt Barnes's 3-pointer with 1:50 remaining in the third, then Rondo hit a jumper and Allen a layup for a 96-83 Celtic lead after three.

The Celtics were ahead by 22 midway through the final quarter, but the Suns went into a full-court press, forcing the Celtics to bring back their starters.

"The game wasn't over - a team like that can score a lot of points in a short amount of minutes," Rondo said. "They made a run and we countered. We did a great job executing down the stretch. It's a team effort. I know guys step up and play their role even better when Kevin is out."

The Suns' most effective defensive tactic was to simply knock down Rondo, which Barnes did late in the first half, Steve Nash earning a technical foul for protesting.

"At the beginning we were uptight, we were so concerned about Shaq," Rivers said. "Going into the game, we thought Rondo's speed was a huge advantage for us and I told him to be aggressive, attack, attack, attack. That doesn't mean shoot, that means attack. But he made shots, too. He's just getting better and better, getting more confident."

Most of Rondo's 13 field goals were off drives to the basket, but he also hit a 3-pointer with two seconds on the shot clock late in the opening half and an 18-footer with 88 seconds left in the third quarter.

The Suns cut their deficit to 10 early in the final quarter before the Celtics went on an 11-1 run, a Leon Powe banker providing a 108-88 advantage with 8:17 remaining. The Celtics cut short a final Suns rally as Rondo found Scalabrine for a 3-pointer with 4:44 left, then Paul Pierce (26 points) hit two jumpers and Rondo a drive, leaving the final two minutes to the reserves.

A layup with 1:35 left by rookie Bill Walker tied the team's season high for points, and soon after J.R. Giddens made his NBA debut.

"As Rondo goes, this team goes," Pierce said. "If he plays as well as he's playing, there is no way we can lose. He's doing a great job finding guys and putting the ball in the hole.

"This team is very confident even without Kevin, because we played without Kevin last year and a few games this year without him. We don't get discouraged when one guy goes down, we just kind of hold the fort down, and we know if we play the right way we can win games."

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