The littlest Celtic on the floor was trying to defend the biggest small forward on the planet. Rajon Rondo, the 6'1", 171-pound point guard, harassed the Heat's 6'8", 250-pound LeBron James as he dribbled, attacking like an enraged Chihuahua going after a Doberman's chew toy. James, bemused, peered over his shoulder at Rondo as he shielded the ball from the unexpected irritant.
Rondo, hopping and darting in pursuit, spun at full speed and slammed into a pick set by 7'3" Miami center Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Undeterred, Rondo bounced up off his back and pawed the ball away from LeBron, fouling him in the process. The scene on Sunday was like something from America's Funniest Home Videos. It showed the NBA as it rarely is in the middle of winter: unpredictable and impassioned, teams starving—daring, even—to win. Rondo and James weren't holding back until the postseason, when the games really matter. They were clawing now. Today.
Their showdown marked the end of an enervating and entertaining 10-day span in which Boston hosted four title favorites: The Mavericks, the Magic and the Lakers preceded the Heat at TD Garden. Every seasoned contender except the Spurs paid a visit, and no one could remember a stretch like it. "Oh, I would have loved that," said former Celtic and Hall of Famer Larry Bird, now the Pacers' president of basketball operations. "You get to test yourself against the best."
Boston captain Paul Pierce was—like Bird—excited at the notion of serial challenges. "You want to see where your team is," he said. "You know who you're going to be as a team 50 games in, and these teams are trying to figure out, Are they true contenders or pretenders? These are the kinds of games that you want to see."
Television ratings for the NBA are up around 25% over last year—and cable ratings are on pace to be the highest ever—in part because no contender (aside from San Antonio, which, with its injury-free starting five, holds a huge lead for the No. 1 seed) has enjoyed an easy or predictable run. Each of these games was a matchup of potential champions, star-laden teams struggling to fulfill their potential against a blizzard of travel, trade speculation and injury, not to mention talented opposition. The home stand would bring out the best and worst of five teams that have the most to win and the most to lose.
FEB. 4: MAVERICKS 101, CELTICS 97
The first of two Dallas team buses left the Ritz-Carlton on Boston Common at 5:30 p.m. on Friday afternoon. In another era Red Auerbach would have been accused of sabotage: The 1½-mile ride to TD Garden that should have taken 15 minutes wound up lasting an hour. "I was like, Yo, we're going the wrong way," said 6-foot guard Jose Barea, who had played four years at Northeastern before signing with the Mavs in 2006. "It was like we took a tour of Boston. We saw everything. When we got here the later bus was already here, and they left half an hour after us."
Barea would score nine points in the first quarter after hurrying through his pregame routine. Maybe he had been inspired by a conversation with Pierce in the second week of the season, after Barea had scored 11 in the Mavericks' 89--87 comeback win against the Celtics in Dallas. "I went to grab something to eat after the game, and he was there," said Pierce of Barea. "I got to talking to him, and that's when he mentioned he went to Northeastern and used to come and see me play. I told him I didn't know that."
Did Barea laugh off the fact that Pierce had never heard of him, even though they'd played three miles apart? "No," said Pierce with a snicker. "I mean, I'm an NBA player, I'm a Celtic! I came from Kansas! What would I be doing watching Northeastern play?"
The Mavericks were looking forward to gauging themselves in the aftermath of a right-knee sprain suffered by Dirk Nowitzki, who had led Dallas to a 24--5 start. During his absence and the first four games after his return the Mavs went 3--10, but now they had won six straight, thanks not only to Nowitzki but also to the emergence of 7'1" center Tyson Chandler as their defensive version of Boston's 6'11" Kevin Garnett. "What I try to do for my team is what he's done his entire career," said Chandler. "I respect what he's accomplished, so I'm just trying to mirror that."