To Doug Collins, Boston’s Big Three is already a memory.
”I don’t look at them as the Big Three. I look at them as the Championship Four,” the Philadelphia coach said. ”Because if you’re going to leave Rondo out, you’re making a huge mistake.”
Rajon Rondo helped his aging teammates keep their season going Saturday night, finishing with 18 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds in Game 7 against the 76ers to lead Boston to an 85-75 victory and into an Eastern Conference finals matchup with the Miami Heat.
The Celtics will open the third round of the NBA playoffs in Miami on Monday night.
”I’ve already packed,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. ”We’ll be ready. It’s going to be a tough turnaround, but we’re not an excuse team. We’ll be ready on Monday.”
Bouncing back from his worst game of the playoffs — and snapping out of a 32-minute slump in which he had just two assists and five points — Rondo scored nine straight Boston points after Paul Pierce fouled out to help the Celtics turn a three-point edge into a double-digit lead.
Rondo had 11 points in the fourth quarter, including his first three-pointer in five games, made all four of his free throws down the stretch and grabbed his 10th rebound in the final minute — chucking it over his head and into the frontcourt to help the Celtics wind down the clock.
”He really came through,” Sixers guard Jrue Holiday said. ”He put the team on his back.”
Andre Iguodala scored 18 points, and Holiday and Elton Brand had 15 apiece for the 76ers, who eliminated the top-seeded Chicago Bulls in the first round, but couldn’t do the same with the Celtics.
Kevin Garnett had 18 points and 13 rebounds for Boston, and Ray Allen hit a pair of fourth-quarter three-pointers after missing his first five attempts.
”Ray is the ultimate gunslinger,” Rivers said. ”That’s what makes great players great. I was a basketball player someday, and I would have never taken that shot.”
Pierce had 15 points and nine rebounds before fouling out with 4:16 left.
That’s when Rondo took over.
The point guard, who had nine points and a playoff-low six assists in the Game 6 loss in Philadelphia, scored on a baseline drive and followed it up with a long two-pointer (originally scored a three) with 2:47 left. Then he made a three with a little more than two minutes left to make it a 10-pont game and, after Brand scored on a tip-in, Rondo went to the line as the crowd chanted ”M-V-P! M-V-P!” He hit a pair of free throws to leave Boston with an 80-70 lead with 1:44 left.
The Celtics will now face the actual NBA MVP — LeBron James — along with Dwyane Wade and the rest of the Heat. Miami advanced to the conference finals by eliminating the Indiana Pacers in six games.
Miami beat Boston in five games in the conference semifinals last year. In 2010, the Celtics eliminated the Heat in the first round, then knocked James and the Cavaliers out in the second — LeBron’s final game with Cleveland before defecting to Miami.
”Last year is in the past,” Rondo said. ”This year, we’re a totally different team. We feel we can beat Miami. We got to this point; there’s no doubt in my mind we can. We’ve got to go down there and take care of business.”
Philadelphia had one last chance with 1:40 to play after Holiday made a three to cut it to seven points. Pierce was left with nothing to do but cheerlead, waving his arms to encourage the crowd as Garnett went to the line with just under a minute left.
He made one of two, but Holiday lost the ball on the way to the basket and Rondo made a pair of free throws with 54 seconds left. Allen made a pair himself as the crowd chanted ”Beat the Heat!”
Jodie Meeks’ desperation three rimmed out, the ball bounced to the floor and Rondo got his hands on it to complete the triple-double.
Pierce picked up two fouls seven seconds apart with about eight minutes to play, then his fifth with 5:16 left. Rivers left him in, and Pierce picked up No. 6 a minute later — a charging call against Thaddeus Young out by the free throw line.
NOTES: Boston got off to a fast start, taking a 10-2 lead thanks to four assists and two rebounds from Rondo in the first three minutes. … The Celtics missed their first 14 attempts from three-point range and made their last three. … Seven of the first nine fouls were called against the Celtics. … It was the 25th anniversary of Larry Bird’s steal and pass to Dennis Johnson to beat Detroit in the 1987 playoffs. … CNN anchor John King, a Boston native, took in the game from courtside, as did TV personality Paula Abdul. … Philadelphia shot just 28 percent from the floor in the first half.