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Suddenly, the Boston Celtics are playing the best basketball they've played in two years, and the best basketball anyone is playing in the NBA at this particular accelerated moment. In the Eastern Conference finals on Sunday, the Celtics beat the Orlando Magic all over Amway Arena—and isn't that one soulful name for a building?—for three quarters, managing to hang on late and break service on the series with a 92-88 win. A few days prior, they put away the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James with such relative ease that James' reputation—which really took one below the waterline—may never be repaired, no matter which team it is that will undertake its repair next season. On the morning after, as though he didn't have enough problems, James had to live with the knowledge that Skip Bayless, the most prolific bilge fountain in the ESPN Family of Bilge Fountains, was crowing about how He Told Them So. Even granting that the audience for First Take is made up almost entirely of people who were so drunk while watching SportsCenter the night before that they passed out without turning off the TV, and even granting that James' performance made up in apathy what it lacked in heart, nobody deserves to have his bones picked by the likes of Skip Bayless.
Of course, there will now be several months of postmortems, recriminations, and what will surely be an endless Where-Will-LeBron-Play-Next? melodrama—shut up now, Spike, I'm begging here—so that the coverage of the NBA will remain James-o-centric likely throughout the rest of the playoffs. Which will be too bad, because the playoffs themselves are crashing down to a compelling climax, if only because the Celtics are playing like the team that won it all two years ago, and they are playing that way because Rajon Rondo has become the single most important player still alive in these NBA playoffs who's never had to beat an assault charge in Colorado. Even with a quiet game on Sunday, Rondo remained the great balance-gear to what Boston has accomplished since the days two months ago when they were getting run out of their own building by the Memphis Grizzlies and rumors swirled of friction between the younger players (like, say, Rajon Rondo) and the older members of the firm. Right now, and for most of the team's unlikely current renaissance, the Celtics are Rajon Rondo's team. Everything goes through him, and the likes of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen will get the shots he gets for them.
Make no mistake. When the Cleveland series started, Rondo was the single physical mismatch that the Celtics had going for them. He was too quick for James and too smart for Mo Williams. In the fourth game of the series, after the Cavaliers had roasted the Celtics in Boston, it was Rondo who turned the series around for good, putting up a monstrous, throwback, no-bullshit Oscar Robertson performance of 29 points, 13 assists, and a staggering 18 rebounds. That game broke the Cavaliers, and it demonstrated what had become increasingly obvious over the past season: that the three old guys now dance to the tune he calls.
This, of course, is coming from a 24-year-old about whom the team was so uncertain that a) it once seriously wondered if he or Sebastian Telfair was Boston's future at the position; b) it benched him in the middle of the 2008 NBA Finals because of lackluster play (caused in part by an injured ankle); c) it shopped him conspicuously before the 2009 NBA draft, most notably to Detroit, and d) it still dragged its feet, sniping at him all the way, before signing him to a five-year, $55 million extension at the start of this season. Things got so testy during that period that there was talk, likely leaked from the Celtics front office, that Rondo had shown up late to a playoff game last year. The rumor was then confirmed by Boston GM Danny Ainge on a Boston talk-radio station.
Nevertheless, Rondo's improvement over the past three seasons has taken a steady trajectory. He is now more of a pure point guard, not just in transition—where he always has been forceful—but also in the half-court game, finding his teammates in their sweet spots on the court with what seems like clairvoyance. He forces the action less; in the fifth game against Cleveland, he played a solid game at the point and yet he didn't score until the second half. Time was when that would have prompted a flurry of bullheaded drives and circus shots. Instead, Rondo showed in abundance what he had never shown in his career to that point—patience.
It was his impatience that marked him lousy at Kentucky, where he bridled at the restrictions in Tubby Smith's offense to the point where Rondo got his starting spot taken away for six games. He got a rep for being stubborn, much of which he deserved, and which also erupted again as he and Celtics coach Doc Rivers got to know each other. Fortunately for both men, Rivers was once a young point guard himself. Like Rondo, he came onto a veteran team that already had an established star in Dominique Wilkins. Rivers had then-coach Mike Fratello in his ear from the first day of rookie camp. Ultimately, that shared experience has been the basis of the confidence that has grown between the two of them, even though Rivers seems congenitally incapable of using Rondo's first name.
Under Rivers' guidance, Rondo has become the most unstoppable point guard in the NBA and, in the postseason, very likely the best one. The only one still with an argument is Steve Nash in Phoenix, and Nash has proved himself completely incapable of guarding Rondo at all. There will be people who will argue for New Orleans' Chris Paul, who shoots better, and Utah's Deron Williams, who is bigger and stronger, but neither of them have done what Rondo has done when games truly begin to count.
Rondo will need to be at his best against the Magic, who are younger and quicker and more athletic than the Cavaliers, and who have more defenders to throw at him. In evaluating the Celtics' chances, it's that rebounding number against Cleveland that makes all the difference. That's something that no guard of his size should be able to do, and it is the best indicator of his ability to shake up the momentum of a game or a series. In many ways, all of them unexpected, this championship is his to win, because he's the variable on an aging team. If he's very lucky, Skip Bayless won't notice that for a while.