By Gethin Coolbaugh
I was completely ready to write the Celtics off late Sunday afternoon.
With a 74-72 lead entering the fourth quarter, I sat in my car in a Stop and Shop parking lot and Tweeted the following:
“THIS is it for the Celtics. If they can’t close out the fourth quarter with a lead, their season is over.”
In my head, I knew that they had a chance. But there wasn’t any optimism about it. After all, the Celtics have frittered away leads larger that this in the final quarter.
But much to my surprise, Boston came to play in that final quarter, outscoring Cleveland 23-15 in the final frame to clinch the 97-87 victory and even the series at two games apiece.
It’s no small feat to hold the Cavaliers, the team with the best regular-season record in the league, to 15 fourth quarter points.
And one’s first inclination is to give all of the praise to one very, very talented 24-year-old who may have taken a step closer to superstardom with his performance on Sunday.
That man is, of course, Rajon Rondo.
But before we proclaim Rondo as the greatest player in Celtics history, as some fans may be inclined to do, let’s break down the important numbers.
No, not the 29 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists. Not even the 46 minutes and 48 seconds that Rondo played or the 11-of-16 free throws he made.
Let’s look at the numbers in the game-changing fourth quarter.
Rondo made 3-of-5 field goals to score 8 points and had seven rebounds, three assists and three turnovers in the quarter.
While Boston could have done without the three turnovers, the other numbers are nothing short of impressive.
One of the key attributes that I admire about Rondo is his ability to get to the boards and grab the rebound.
For a 6-1, 186-pound guard to average 4.4 boards per game in the regular season is impressive in its own right.
But for Rondo to average 7.1 rebounds in nine playoff games is remarkable.
In this series alone, Rondo is averaging 21.7 points, 8.2 rebounds and 13 assists.
Rondo is playing like the team’s only all star, instead of the fourth-wheel to the Big Three.
But for Rondo to step up in the clutch when his team needs him most makes his performance all the greater.
Yet in Paul Pierce’s eyes, Rondo’s performance was not great.
“I told him in the back that wasn’t a great performance, that was special,” Pierce said of Rondo’s play.
It’s a rarity that you find a talented athlete who can perform in the regular season and in the postseason. It’s even more of a rarity that you find one who can play like Rondo does at the young age of 24.
Look at Peyton Manning and Alex Rodriguez. Both were considered the best regular-season performers in their sport. Yet when the playoffs rolled around, they became dormant.
Manning and Rodriguez eventually won titles, but it took them many years to do so.
Rondo won in his second season, and it appears as if the experience is making him a better all-around player.
He wasn’t the reason that Boston won in 2008, and in fact he was almost benched in the NBA Finals, but the experience of playing at such a high level with a talented veteran roster seems to have helped his development.
All things considered, for Rondo to come up with sound all-around play in his fourth year in the league is uncanny.
While the series is tied 2-2, the general consensus is that Cleveland still has the upper hand. And that’s the way I see the series unfolding.
My original pick was Cleveland in seven games, and I’m sticking to it. But the Celtics have made the series much more interesting, and in the process have made Cavaliers fans sweat bullets.
The way the series has played out, it appears as if Cleveland will take Game 5 at home and Boston, with their backs to the wall, will come to play in Game 6 at TD Garden.
And then, home court advantage really starts paying off for Cleveland. Injured elbow or not, expect LeBron James to have a tremendous performance in Game 7 as he leads Cleveland to its second consecutive Eastern Conference Finals.
I am 90% sure that Cleveland will win Game 5, but if the Celtics manage to steal the game, my series outlook would be altered. A win in Game 5 would take all the pressure off the Celtics, giving them two chance to close out the series while Cleveland would be forced to win two straight.
Gethin Coolbaugh is the Associate Editor of Boston Sports U18. He can be reached at 774-279-1995 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit Gethin Coolbaugh’s official website and follow Gethin Coolbaugh on Twitter.