The Celtics proved they could win without him in Game 2. In his return from a one-game suspension, Rajon Rondo showed why Boston is still among the favorites with him.
Playing for the first time since being ejected for arguing and bumping into a referee during the series opener in Atlanta, Rondo helped the Celtics seize control of the series Friday night.
His sixth triple-double of the season helped Boston prevail to a 90-84 victory in overtime and take a 2-1 series lead over the Hawks.
Atlanta held Pierce to 3-of-12 shooting from the field, but he still managed 21 points off shear will, absorbing punishing hits throughout the contest and still knocking down all 14 of his free throw attempts.
With Pierce struggling from the field, and the Hawks daring Rondo to shoot, the 6-foot-1 point guard once again appeared to be the biggest player on the court.
Rondo finished with 17 points, 14 rebounds, 12 assists and four steals as he remained on the floor for 49 minutes, more than any other player Friday.
Game 3 marked the seventh triple-double of Rondo’s career in the playoffs, tying him with LeBron James for second most among active players. The triple-double marked the 20th of Rondo’s career.
A three-pointer from Joe Johnson, part of his game-high 29 points, tied the game at 80 with 1:23 remaining, finishing an 8-0 run by the Hawks.
Each team had opportunities to win the game, but couldn’t convert on the offensive end. Rondo and Johnson traded missed layups, Kevin Garnett‘s 17-footer fell short, Willie Green‘s 21-footer hit off the back rim, allowing Boston a chance to win in regulation.
Pierce had struggled to find his jumper all night, but there was no question he is the player Boston would turn to with the game on the line.
Receiving the inbound pass, with just 3.9 seconds left on the clock, Pierce took the ball from the top of the arc, drove right, pump faked to draw Johnson off his feet, readjusted his body to square up and launched a 21-footer.
The ball hit the right side of the rim and ricocheted towards the Hawks bench, setting up five additional minutes of play.
Rondo scored the first four points in the extra session and Boston’s defense clamped down, limiting Atlanta to 2-of-10 shooting in overtime to prevail.
All season long, Rondo has responded to any doubts by submitting performances unseen in the NBA for decades.
After months of rumors surrounded Rondo being dealt to New Orleans for Chris Paul, he opened the season on the biggest stage, Madison Square Garden, on Christmas Day by submitting 31 points, 13 assists, five rebounds and five assists against New York.
During a Sunday showcase against the Bulls, Rondo submitted a 32 point, 15 assist, 10 rebound effort to help Boston snap out of a mid-season slide.
The following weekend, playing in his first game after rumors leaked about the Celtics considering sending Rondo to the Lakers for Pau Gasol, Rondo torched the Knicks for 18 points, 20 rebounds and 17 assists, a performance unlike any other since Magic Johnson was in the league.
He closed the season with 23-straight games of 10 or more assists, surpassing Steve Nash to claim his first assist title of his six-year career.
Rondo was immediately electric in his return Friday night.
Boston controlled the opening tip and Rondo put his head down and bulled his way to the rim. Even though his layup attempt failed to drop through the net, a message was sent.
Jeff Teague, Atlanta’s counterpart for Rondo at point guard, continued his dazzling play, finished with 23 points, six assists, four rebounds, two blocks and two steals of his own, but it wasn’t enough to sidetrack Rondo from carrying his team to victory.
In overtime, Boston once gain controlled the tip and 17 seconds later, Rondo provided the team a lead it wouldn’t surrender with a jumper.
Atlanta countered with a layup from Green, but Rondo’s jumper from three-feet away on the next possession put the Celtics up for good.
The game was sealed with 28 seconds remaining as Rondo drove to the basket, faked Teague out with his patented pump fake.
He raised his right arm up as if to attempt a layup, sending Teauge flying by as he tried to block the shot, spun around and lofted a right handed hook towards the basket. The ball bounced off the left side of the rim, but Garnett skied in for a put back dunk, increasing the Celtics lead to four.
His suspension could have ruined the Celtics season, but a reengaged Rondo has helped Boston remain as one of the top contenders in the Eastern Conference.