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Even against King James, Rondo reigns

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  May 5, 2010 07:01 AM

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LeBron this, LeBron that … LeBron, LeBron, LeBron. Think it’s occurred to anyone at ESPN, TNT or the NBA that LeBron James hasn’t even been the best player in his own playoff series thus far?

The Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers will not play Game 3 of this Eastern Conference semifinal series until Friday, and that’s probably a good thing for the Cavs. By then, maybe Cleveland coach Mike Brown can come up with some sort of plan to slow down Rajon Rondo, for whom the Cavs have had absolutely no answer in this series. In addition to having scored a combined 40 points in Games 1 and 2, Rondo has 31 assists, 10 of which have come on 3-pointers. Add it all up and you’ll determine that Rondo has had a direct hand in 112 of the 197 points the Celtics have scored in this series.

And that is a safe, conservative estimate. Undoubtedly, there have been occasions in this series where Rondo’s wizardry has produced free throws or additional passes that produced hoops.

Somewhere in the middle of this, Danny Ainge is undoubtedly smiling, and not solely because Rondo was selected after such luminaries as Patrick O’Bryant, Mouhamed Sene, Thabo Sefolosha and, for that matter, Shelden Williams in the 2006 NBA Draft. Even in the last year, Rondo’s stock has continued to soar, making that five-year, $55 million contract signed by Rondo last summer look like the biggest steal the Celtics have executed since Bird suckered Isiah in May 1987.

The best part? Rondo has yet to even start that deal, which begins next season. Meanwhile, during a season in which he has displaced Bob Cousy from the Celtics record book, he continues to develop as a dynamic and dominating force that will guide the Celtics for years to come.

Rondo was similarly opening our eyes a year ago at this time, of course, but that was different. Kevin Garnett was out. The Celtics were operating at something less than full capacity. While racking up a succession of triple-doubles during the playoffs – he finished the postseason averaging 16.9 points, 9.8 assists and 9.7 rebounds – Rondo sometimes played as if the triple-doubles were all that mattered. He pulled rebounds away from bigger teammates. He took some ill-advised shots and passed up open looks. He made some questionable decisions.

But now? Now Rondo is dropping over-the-top lobs into Garnett and behind Antawn Jamison on one possession after the next. Now he is making his free throws. (So far this postseason, he is 29 for 36, 80.6 percent. That work with Mark Price -- an ex-Cav, it must be noted -- paid off.) Now he is positively abusing Mo Williams in what is easily the biggest mismatch of this series, LeBron be damned, elbow or no elbow.

And Rondo is doing it all without any more whispers of stubbornness or immaturity, criticisms levied at him by none other than his own general manager last summer during negotiations.

For the Cavs, stopping Rondo is now of the utmost importance, particularly after a Game 2 performance in which he had Cleveland heads spinning. Of the nine 3-pointers made by the Celtics in Game 2, Rondo assisted on eight of them. Eight additional assists produced layups, dunks or shots within five feet of the basket. For the series, Rondo has assisted on 16 baskets scored within five feet of the hoop, the large majority of those on layups or dunks.

The Cavs’ inability to stop him has created major matchup problems on the floor – the Celtics seem particularly interested in exploiting the defensively deficient Antawn Jamison with Garnett, who has taken more shots (41) in the first two games of the series than in any other two-game span since 2008 – and Cleveland already has tried an array of defenders and methods against him. Both Shaquille O’Neal and Anderson Varejao have flattened Rondo with hard fouls – to no avail.

Entering this postseason, we all knew what was at stake for the Celtics, who have aged considerably in the last 18 months. This playoff season very much felt like the last roundup. There are younger and far more athletic teams than the Celtics participating in this postseason – the Cavs are not necessarily one of them – and there was relatively little reason to believe in an 18th championship banner this spring until Monday night. That was when the Celtics won their first truly meaningful game of the postseason against a Cleveland team that went 74-8 at home over the last two regular seasons, and that was when Rondo, the indisputable future of this Celtics team, continued to shred a Cleveland defense that looks to be wearing cement shoes.

Make no mistake, that LeBron James certainly is something.

But so far in the Eastern Conference semifinals, Rajon Rondo has been something even better.

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About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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