BOSTON – Rajon Rondo built a reputation in Boston as a player who consistently raised his level of play come playoff time.
His ability to transform from an All-Star caliber regular-season player to a superstar postseason performer earned him the springtime nickname, Playoff Rondo.
The Celtics embraced the concept of Playoff Rondo for five postseason runs in Boston, but this time around, they’re trying to figure out a way to stop it.
Rondo played like his vintage self during Tuesday’s Game 2 at TD Garden, as the Chicago Bulls point guard finished one rebound shy of a triple-double. He tallied 11 points, 14 assists and nine rebounds, leading Chicago to a convincing 111-97 win en route to a 2-0 series advantage.
The Celtics came out swinging for the fences Tuesday night as they built up an early 7-0 lead. It appeared as if Boston was well on its way to tying up the first-round series, but then Rondo was able to pull the momentum into Chicago’s favor.
“I thought he was the key early in the game as far as getting us up the floor,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg, whose team quickly shot down Boston’s early lead. “I thought his pace was terrific. We knew they’d come out and play with great energy. Rajon, I thought, did a terrific job once we got the ball off the glass to push the ball down the floor and get our guys some good shots, which led to some confidence.”
On the other end of the floor, Rondo was able to lock down on Isaiah Thomas, limiting the high-volume scorer to just 20 points during 42 minutes of play.
In all, it was a lot to ask of Rondo, but Hoiberg knows his veteran point guard is willing to – and is capable of – stepping up and handling such responsibilities at this time of the season.
“He’s been in a lot of these big moments,” said the coach. “(He has) championship experience, so he’s going to continue to lead us as long as we are playing.”
Not only did Rondo play a big role during Tuesday’s game; he also was key during Chicago’s Game 1 win at TD Garden. During two playoff games he has averaged 11.5 points, 10.0 assists and 8.5 rebounds per game, after tallying marks of 7.8 PPG, 6.7 APG and 5.1 RPG during the regular season.
How, though, is Rondo able to consistently raise his level of play on the NBA’s biggest stage?
“For the Playoffs, for me in particular, you get a couple of days of extra rest on the body,” said Rondo, who also snagged five steals during Tuesday’s effort. “You get three or four days of prep for a team to lock into their game plan … I don’t know what it is, I just try to lock in and do what I can for my team.”
Backcourt mate Dwyane Wade is all too familiar with Rondo’s ability to hone in on an opposing team’s game plan during a seven-game postseason series. When Wade was with the Miami Heat, Rondo’s game prep frustrated him on numerous occasions during playoff matchups with the Celtics.
“When we would play Boston back in the day, he would know all the plays,” Wade recalled. “He messes up your first option and then he knows the second option. We were just good enough to have a third option. But he was that good.”
Now, Rondo is using that expertise against his former Celtics team.
“He’s playing with a lot of leadership out there,” observed Jae Crowder, who scored 16 points in the loss. “He’s putting guys in position. He’s calling out sets. He’s just being a very good leader out there with those guys and I think they feed off of that. I think he’s always had that leadership mentality since he was here (in Boston). He’s a veteran, he knows how to win and he’s doing a good job of leading those guys.”
The question is, can the Celtics figure out how to counteract Rondo’s incredible basketball IQ and heightened level of play? They will now travel to Chicago where they will attempt to do so. Being down 2-0, they need to figure it out quickly.