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Confidence is high for Rondo

The Sixers’ Andre Iguodala looks for an open teammate as Celtics Paul Pierce (left) and Kevin Garnett close in. The Sixers’ Andre Iguodala looks for an open teammate as Celtics Paul Pierce (left) and Kevin Garnett close in. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / November 26, 2009

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Rajon Rondo took over in the fourth quarter of the Celtics’ 113-110 win over the 76ers at TD Garden last night. Coach Doc Rivers trusted Rondo enough to allow the point guard, who just signed a $55 million contract, to play the entire quarter with the game in the balance.

That wasn’t the case Sunday against the Knicks or Friday against the Magic. Rivers said he felt more comfortable with Eddie House in the game defensively, which had to serve as smelling salt to Rondo, given House’s past defensive liabilities.

Last night, Rondo was brilliant down the stretch, but what pleased Rivers most was that Rondo finally trusted himself enough to take a clutch jumper. Rondo spent the entire evening spinning to the basket, sometimes as close as a mere layup, but choosing to swing the ball to a teammate. It frustrated the crowd and while the Celtics rallied behind his defense and leadership, Rondo appeared hesitant to shoot.

Perhaps he had flashbacks to Sunday, when he was left open for a 3-pointer at the end of regulation and missed, or throughout that game when New York coach Mike D’Antoni chose to leave Rondo alone on the perimeter because he has yet to prove he can convert a consistent jump shot.

Last night’s key jumper carried a high degree of difficulty. He had the ball as the 24-second clock melted away and he had no choice but to launch a shot. So he spun toward the basket near the baseline, his momentum pulling him away from the goal. He released a rainbow fade away that rolled through the net for a 109-105 lead with 9.6 seconds left.

Rondo finished with just 10 points, but his effect on the game was unquestioned. While his teammates were busy clanging 3-pointers - 7 for 27 - Rondo insisted on darting into the lane and setting up easier baskets. It seems the Celtics are intent on breaking out of their 3-point doldrums and that was the primary reason why Philadelphia remained in the game.

The 76ers hit 13 out of 20, including a combined six from Jason Kapono and Willie Green. Ray Allen, Rasheed Wallace, and Eddie House were a combined 4 for 17 and that almost led to a fourth home loss.

It is apparent the Celtics are a better team when Rondo controls the pace and pushes the ball. He sparked a 23-7 run to begin the fourth quarter. He scored 8 points with 3 assists and 2 rebounds in the final period, showing flashes of dominance against rookie Jrue Holiday.

“Confidence,’’ was Wallace’s response when asked what Rondo could take away from his late-game dagger. “It was a big shot. Even though that wasn’t the drawn up play, still to have the confidence in your teammates knowing that they could hit a shot. That’s something that you need down the stretch.’’

Rondo takes a lot of pride in setting up heralded teammates, but Rivers, a former point guard, is stressing that Rondo be more aggressive offensively. There has been a history of great point guards who have struggled with their perimeter shot. Jason Kidd shot below 42 percent from the field in his first four seasons.

Steve Nash shot just 36 percent in his third NBA season. Hall of Famer Magic Johnson made just 23 of 135 3-pointers (17 percent) in his first five seasons. Rondo shoots above 50 percent because most of his shots are layups, but opposing coaches are keen to his perimeter timidity and attempt to exploit it by leaving him open.

“That’s how I play,’’ he said earlier this week. “It’s hard for me to get the mind-set to shoot the ball when I am open; instead I always try to pass first. When I shoot the ball I have to think shot. I can’t think sometimes pass.’’

When asked whether he views teams giving him shooting space as a sign of disrespect, Rondo said, “It is, but at the end of the day, I just try to dominate the game in other ways. It happened the year we won the championship. [The Lakers] put Kobe [Bryant] on me and he was the help guy.’’

While Rondo left without speaking to reporters, the significance of this shot was not lost on the rest of the Celtics. Rondo is cocky because he has to be. That’s what allowed him to leave Kentucky after two seasons. That’s what fueled him when NBA pundits scoffed at his ability to lead a team to a championship.

Rondo doesn’t acknowledge faults. He doesn’t show weakness or vulnerability. He just emphasizes his strengths. Hopefully for the Celtics, he is building another strength.

“He’s confident to take that [shot] in that stretch,’’ said Paul Pierce, who saved the Celtics with 27 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 assists. “It was the biggest shot of the night because if he doesn’t make that, we are looking at the possibility of Philly coming down and tying it or winning the game. Usually shots like that give a player confidence. I remember my first game-winning shot I made . . . it just gave me a lot of confidence. So hopefully it will do the same for Rondo.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at

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