Rondo's reward: duel with LeBron
Dynamic pass-first point guard Rajon Rondo has stolen thunder from LeBron
His Game 4 triple-double sits behind Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson
Now, the Cavaliers may have MVP LeBron James guard Rondo in Game 5
There is only one NBA conference semifinal series that was contested: Celtics vs. Cavaliers. There are at least five future Hall of Famers playing in the series: Shaquille O'Neal, LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. O'Neal, Garnett and James have won MVP awards and Pierce was MVP of the Finals in 2008. James is, without dispute, the best player on the planet in 2010.
And the best player in this hotly contested 2-2 series (which resumes Tuesday night at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland) has been Rajon Rondo. Without question.
In four games against the Cavs, the 6-foot-1 Boston guard is averaging 21.8 points, 8.3 rebounds and 13 assists in 42 minutes.
Rondo made NBA history in Game 4 at the New Garden in Boston when he scored 29 points in addition to 18 rebounds and 13 assists in a 97-87 series-squaring Celtics victory over the heavily favored Cavaliers. In NBA playoff lore, the only triple-doubles that surpassed Rondo's were achieved by Wilt Chamberlain (29 points, 36 rebounds, 13 assists on April 11, 1967) and Oscar Robertson (32 points, 19 rebounds, 13 assists on March 26, 1963). That's pretty good company.
"It's major,'' said Cleveland guard Mo Williams. "You go out and compete against a guy every day, but obviously you've gotta be a fan of the game and, what we call in the urban world, you can't be a hater. When a guy has a game like that you've gotta tip your hat to him, but at the same time we'll see him in Game 5 in Cleveland.''
Cleveland coach Mike Brown has tried putting Williams on Rondo.
He's tried 6-6 Anthony Parker. He's tried Delonte West off the bench. Who knows? LeBron might be next.
"I would love to [guard Rondo],'' James said when asked about taking on the Celtics' pocket rocket. "It's something that we maybe should explore because Rondo is definitely dominating the series at the point guard position. For me, I don't have a problem taking Rondo or guarding Rondo throughout the course of the game. If the coaching staff or the guys want me to do it, I will.''
It's pretty amazing that four games into the series, we're talking about the Cavs using LeBron to guard Rondo. I mean, what ever happened to Boston's Big Three?
"It used to be the Big Three and Rajon Rondo,'' Magic Johnson said on ESPN. "Now it's Rajon Rondo and the little three.''
Magic is one of the few guards capable of an 18-rebound game. But he was 6-9. Rondo is eight inches shorter than Magic. And he's only 24 years old with four years in the league.
"He's got a great nose for the basketball,'' said Brown. "All of his rebounds aren't necessarily ones that come right off the rim. If they're long and they hit that ground and you stand and watch, he's coming up with them because he's extremely quick to the ball.
"Rondo has Hall of Fame skills,'' said Celtics broadcaster Tommy Heinsohn, a Hall of Famer who has been part of the NBA since 1956. "He reminds me of [Bob] Cousy. He thinks pass first. If you are on that team and you get open, he gets you the ball.''
This isn't Rondo's first go-round in the playoffs. He won a championship as starting point guard of the Celtics in 2008. But he was immature and unfinished in those days. The Celtics thought about benching him after a particularly awful performance (three points, 1-for-7 shooting, 15 minutes) in Game 5 of the Finals against the Lakers. Last year Rondo bloomed as a playoff star, averaging 19.4 points, 9.3 rebounds and 11.6 assists in an epic, first-round, seven-game series against the Bulls.
Danny Ainge gets credit for discovering Rondo. Ainge went to see Rondo play at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia, then sent two scouts to track him against international competition in a tournament in Texas. Rondo went to Kentucky, where coach Tubby Smith told people Rondo could high-jump seven feet and could have been the NCAA champ in the 100. On draft night in 2006, Ainge maneuvered cash, contracts and draft picks, working out a deal to have Phoenix select Rondo (21st overall) then send him to Boston.
In true Red Auerbach fashion, Ainge relied on the ineptitude of a rival in order to get the player he wanted. Knicks boss Isiah Thomas had a chance to implode Ainge's plan by taking Rondo with the 20th pick in the draft, but Isiah passed on Rondo and selected the immortal Renaldo Balkman. Rondo was left for Phoenix ... and Boston.
Incredible as it sounds, Rondo had to fight Sebastian Telfair and West to crack the lineup in the Celtics' abysmal season of 2006-07. Now he's the best player on the court in a series that includes five Hall of Famers. Let's see if LeBron guards him Tuesday night.
Dan Shaughnessy is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Read more of his columns here.
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