Celtics only go as far as Rondo takes them

There was a time not so long ago when it was the Big Three who dominated the headlines in Boston, and a young, gifted point guard named Rajon Rondo simply kept his head down and played a role.

During the first season of the Big Three era in Boston in 2008 — the year of the last Celtics championship — the second-year incarnation of Rondo was good enough, but rarely great, and he certainly wasn’t a leader. Not among the cast of outspoken veterans that the Celtics employed. And as the Celtics came to rule the league, Rondo, who turned 22 that season, honed his craft and shaped his identity, learning the game as he soaked in all the wisdom Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen could provide.

But these days, as the Celtics’ veterans enter the final stages of their Hall of Fame careers, the tables have unquestionably turned.

Sure, Garnett, Pierce and Allen still play major roles in Boston’s continued success, and the Celtics’ veteran chemistry is perhaps unrivaled in the league — a precious attribute to be able to flaunt, especially at this time of year. But now Rondo is all grown up, and he’s been promoted off the undercard; he’s the caption of this ship.

The Celtics go as Rondo goes, and if they want a crack at another championship in perhaps their final season with this group, they’ll keep following his lead Monday night in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Philadelphia 76ers.

If they don’t, they might as well pack it in — if not now against No. 8 Philly, then in the next round, presumably against Miami and its Big Three — because without Rondo in charge and at the top of his game, the Big Three in green have no shot.

Sure, Boston can play well without Rondo in the short term. They came away with a nice victory during their first-round series with Atlanta as he served a one-game suspension after bumping referee Marc Davis in Game 1.

But to do it the Celtics needed a throwback performance out of Paul Pierce, who scored 36 points and had 14 rebounds, and with the 34-year-old Pierce now battling a sprained MCL, it would be asking too much to consistently expect his A-game as the long postseason wears on.

Rondo returned with a triple-double in a Game 3 win, which gave Boston a 2-1 lead that it wouldn’t relinquish and prompted head coach Doc Rivers to urge his point guard to “run the show,” and he’s been in command ever since, averaging 16.2 points, 12.7 assists and 6.2 rebounds in the postseason.

In Saturday’s Game 1 win over Philly at TD Garden, Rondo was utterly amazing once again, overcoming a slow, seemingly disengaged start to turn in the eighth playoff triple-double of his career.

“He is an amazing player,” Philadelphia coach Doug Collins said after watching Rondo torch his team for 13 points, 17 assists and 12 rebounds. “He really, really is. He takes the ball wherever he wants to take it on the floor. He is spectacular.”

After stumbling out of the gates in Game 1, Rondo did nearly everything right down the stretch to help his team rally. In the third quarter he scored five points and had five assists. In the fourth he added four more dimes and six points, including the Celtics’ final bucket, a long two-point jumper that gave Boston a 92-87 lead with 56.3 seconds left.

Rondo is dangerous enough when he can’t knock down shots — and he’s long been criticized as a below-average jump shooter — but when he’s sinking long J’s, other teams might as well call it quits and save themselves the trouble, because there’s really no stopping him or the Celtics when his shot is on.

“When he starts making shots, you have to honor that, so that allows the other guys to get a little bit more space,” Sixers guard Lou Williams said. “That allows KG to get on the block one-on-one with a guy, or Paul the iso and for Ray to run off a screen. . . . He makes some timely, big shots for them, some big jumpers, and he was able to get them over the hump.”

But looking back, it may have been two plays that don’t show up in Rondo’s packed stat sheet — each coming with 3.4 seconds left in the fourth quarter — that were the biggest difference.

The first came with the Celtics leading 92-89 when Rondo observantly fouled Jrue Holiday in the open floor and sent him to the line for two free throws, essentially keeping the Sixers from tying it up in that possession. Then, after Holliday cut the lead to one, Boston took a timeout and, on the ensuing play, Rondo created some separation from Philly guard Evan Turner, took the inbounds pass, then ran like hell, avoiding a foul and running out the clock as Turner unsuccessfully tried to keep up.

“I felt like I could out-quick him,” Rondo said in his understated, matter-of-fact style, “and that’s what I did.”

But the kind of headiness Rondo showed in crunch time Saturday is nothing new to his teammates, who have grown accustomed to seeing his high basketball IQ on display for the past few years, watching his seamless transition from pupil to teacher.

“Sometimes his basketball intellect is overshadowed by some of his moments,” veteran Celtics guard Keyon Dolling said. “He’s the smartest player in our game.

“If you look, he’s a coach on the floor. I watched him the whole last five possessions, and he was just coaching everybody. It kind of reminded me of Doc, the way he was calling each person, getting the eye contact, telling them what to do, telling them what to look for. It’s pretty amazing to see him on the court. He’s not so quiet and reserved when he’s dictating policy on the court.”

Rondo’s time watching and learning is clearly long behind him, and the transformation he’s undergone since he was a punk kid on the outside of the Celtics’ circle of trust looking in is truly remarkable.

These days Rondo is the one leading the way, his former mentors waiting at his beck and call. And the Celtics had better keep listening, because their hopes for the title rest squarely on the one-time role player’s incredibly capable shoulders.

Follow Sam Gardner on Twitter: @sam_gardner