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May 9, 2011
Playoff Prospectus
One Armed Guard

by Bradford Doolittle

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at Boston 97, Miami 81 (Miami leads series 2-1)
Pace: 81.0
Offensive Ratings: Boston 119.7, Miami 99.9

We love it when athletes play hurt, and hate it when they don't. In Chicago, Bears fans skewered Jay Cutler for not playing through what turned out to be a knee ligament injury in the last NFC Championship game. It wouldn't have mattered if A.J. Hawk had torn Cutler's plant leg completely off of his torso. Fans still would have cussed Cutler, and waxed poetic about the days of Sid Luckman, when a player would just rub some dirt on his wounds and play on with teeth gritted. So it is that Rajon Rondo is being exalted for his performance in the Celtics' must-win contest against Miami on Saturday. It's not why the Celtics won, but it's an awfully good story.

The highlight shows played Rondo's elbow injury on a never-ending loop, so I'm sure you've seen it, that is if you own a television set and are reading this game analysis. It was gruesome. I think my elbow is a little sore just from watching it. Do I think Dwyane Wade meant to injure Rondo? Certainly not. Do I think that 98.7 percent of Tweeters have no idea how to spell Wade's first name? Yes, I do. Do I think it was a dirty play by Wade? You're damned right.

The way I saw it, Rondo moved in behind Wade, they got their feet tangled and Wade went down. He had his right arm behind him, hooked around Rondo. As Wade fell, he wrapped his arm tighter around Rondo and actually jerked him to the ground, as if he were Louden Swain from "Vision Quest". Wade might not have meant to take out Rondo's elbow, but when you behave negligently, bad stuff happens. If you don't see the play that way, that's fine. We won't be suppressing any points of view here. But I will say that Wade has done little to earn the benefit of the doubt, and if I'm Doc Rivers, I might send Big Baby Davis in to take a chunk out of the increasingly insufferable guard. (Seriously, what was with the 1950s frat boy look Wade and James were sporting in the postgame presser?) Davis is not doing anything else of value, so why not?

When Rondo returned, he did his best Pete Gray impression, which I have no doubt served as an inspiration to his teammates. It certainly seemed to put an extra charge into an already virulent crowd at The Garden. But here's the thing: When Rondo was injured at the 7:04 mark of the third quarter, the Celtics led 60-50. When he returned to the game at the start of the fourth quarter, Boston was up 74-61. Rondo did fine in the fourth, with his left arm dangling uselessly at his side, but the Celtics were well on their way to victory anyhow, and probably would have been so even if Delonte West had finished the game in Rondo's stead.

West played very well and his ability to continue to do so may be a key point in the series. West had 11 points (4-of-7 shooting) and three assists in 25:22 on the floor. More importantly, the Celtics were able to maintain the quick pace that helped their offense function with so much efficiency. Rondo will probably continue to play, I'd imagine, but you have to believe he is going to be diminished. Having two able arms is a fairly important prerequisite for playing point guard in the NBA, and the Heat surely won't let Rondo get away with the one-hand act again, not without overplaying to that hand. The erratic West is going to be thrust into the spotlight, but he's performed well on some pretty good teams in the past. But make no mistake about it--the Celtics are going to be diminished without a full-strength Rondo.

The key to Boston's win was its ability to control the tempo of the game. The Celtics were able to push the ball up the floor off of Miami mistakes, resulting in an 18-5 edge in fastbreak points. Boston was 8-of-10 on shots off the break. The Celtics' total of 13 turnovers (five by Rondo) was a manageable number, and they forced 15 Miami miscues to boot. Even though the overall pace of the game was quite slow, Boston seemed to always find easy transition baskets when needed, in effect aping Miami's ability to run selectively.

In the halfcourt, it was a case of Boston's core trio outplaying its Miami counterparts. Paul Pierce was aggressive throughout the game, scoring 27 points, adding five boards and five assists while helping to limit James to 15 points on 6-of-16 shooting. Kevin Garnett had what might have been his best postseason game as a Celtic and certainly his best since Boston's title run in 2008. Garnett was much active in the paint, scoring 28 points, grabbing 18 rebounds, attempting his first two free throws of the series and hampering Chris Bosh into a 1-of-6 shooting performance. If Garnett continues to play like that, the Celtics may be able to survive a limited contribution from Rondo. (As of this writing, Rondo is still being called a game-time decision for Monday's game.)

With the Celtics going inside more, Ray Allen was relatively quiet, but still put up 15 points and forced Wade to chase him all over the floor and fight through screens. Wade shot 8-of-19, a fact at least partially attributable to Allen's efforts on the defensive end. Allen did an especially good job of funneling Wade into the teeth of the Boston defense which overall did well to keep its foul total down and the Heat off the line. Boston also got contributions from Jeff Green, whose athleticism helped speed up the game, and Shaquille O'Neal, who played for the first time in the postseason. He was statuesque, but did bring some needed bulk to the proceedings.

There has been a building chorus about Erik Spoelstra's starting lineup, which has been consistently outscored during the playoffs. The configuration that includes the big three plus Mario Chalmers and Joel Anthony has been far more effective than the starting unit, which features Mike Bibby and Zydrunas Ilgauskas in place of Chalmers and Anthony. Through Saturday's game, the starting unit had unsightly efficiencies of 84.2 on offense and 124.6 on defense. The Chalmers/Anthony lineup was almost flip: 122.9 on offense, 89.2 on defense. The starting unit has 97 minutes together, while the other has just 65. Spoelstra probably needs to alter the court time of those units, whether or not it comes at the start of the game. On Sunday, it sounded like he was seriously considering a shakeup.

One thing that hasn't mentioned much, at least from what I've heard, is the fact that a Bibby-Wade-James-Bosh-Anthony lineup has actually outperformed the one with Chalmers, albeit in only 26 minutes. So what we're really talking about here is playing Anthony over Ilgauskas to a much greater degree. Well, if you look at Saturday's minutes totals, you see that Ilgauskas played just 9:36; Bibby was at 17:13. Seems like Spoelstra has already made the tweaks everybody wants to see. I don't see why it makes much difference whether or not some of those minutes come at the beginning of the game. However, if Spoelstra wants to see his squad get off to better starts--at the possible risk of having a second-quarter dropoff--that's his prerogative.

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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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