Rondo had just one Saturday night, after another evening of wrestling with the . His right arm dribbled, passed and lifted a city’s hopes, while the left hung limply at his side.
That was all he needed to lead an improbable Celtics resurgence, a 97-81 victory that saved them from an 0-3 deficit in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Based on imagery alone, Rondo should not have been on the court, surely not sprinting and dunking.
He fell awkwardly in the third quarter, bracing himself with his left arm, which bent gruesomely in the wrong direction. When he left for the locker room — trailed by an anxious-looking Danny Ainge, the team president — it seemed certain that Rondo’s night, and perhaps his season, was over.
Yet there he was, playing the entire fourth quarter, with one arm practically pinned to his side, leading the Celtics to a raucous victory at TD Garden.
“It’s not hard at all,” Rondo said later, “especially with the way guys played tonight.”
The Celtics are back from the edge, trailing 2-1 in the series, which continues with Game 4 here on Monday night. Rondo’s status is unclear, and Coach called his injury “a major concern.” Delonte West, Rondo’s backup, also is a question mark after bruising his left shoulder.
But for one night, the Celtics were the Celtics again — harassing into a miserable shooting night, corralling Chris Bosh and absorbing every blow that Dwyane Wade dished out.
summoned a vintage performance with 28 points and 18 rebounds. Paul Pierce at last won his battle with James, scoring 27 points. But it was Rondo’s inspired return, along with 6 points and 11 assists, that will be enshrined in franchise lore.
“That was a championship-caliber response,” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said. “No other real way to put it.”
Rondo and Wade were wrestling for a loose ball when both tumbled to the court with 7 minutes 2 seconds left in the third. Wade appeared to grab Rondo and pull him down, and Rondo instinctively stuck out his left hand to brace himself. His arm buckled and he collapsed to the court. The pain was so intense that Garnett, standing nearby, had to remind him to keep breathing.
The Celtics had a fragile 10-point lead at the time. Rondo said he never considered that his night was over.
“My adrenaline was too high,” he said. “I fed off the crowd energy, my teammates out there playing well.”
He added: “I just wanted to play and be a part of it. I wasn’t doing much offensively, but I felt I could try to change the game’s momentum by getting to the ball defensively. And I just need two legs for that.”
Rondo started the fourth quarter, to the crowd’s surprise and delight. He mostly left his left arm down. But he raised it once to poke the ball from Bosh, then raced for a breakaway dunk that made it 81-63. Moments later, he committed a foul trying to draw a charge on Wade. He finished his night with a perfect bounce pass to Pierce in the corner for a 3-pointer.
“Just typical Rondo,” Garnett said.
Wade had 23 points for Miami but was not nearly as lethal as he had been in Games 1 and 2. James missed 10 of his 16 field-goal attempts and finished with 15 points.
“They played harder than us and they played more efficiently than us,” Spoelstra said. “We’re trying to take down a champion, and it will be one of the toughest things we have to do collectively.”
Twenty-four hours before the Celtics took the court, they saw the — their longtime rivals, and foe in two recent finals — fall to 0-3 against the . One aging dynasty was already waning. The Celtics seemed primed to follow.
Before tip-off, fans sang along to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” — an anthem that seemed more desperate than hopeful under the circumstances.
The three-day break since Game 2 probably benefited the Celtics the most, allowing Pierce (Achilles’), Ray Allen (chest) and Rondo (back) to heal from their injuries.
The early signs for Boston were encouraging. Pierce was hitting shots, was blocking shots (by both Wade and James) and the Big 3 scored the Celtics’ first 23 points.
When Zydrunas Ilgauskas’s errant pass landed in the lap of Wyc Grousbeck, the Celtics’ managing partner, it seemed the leprechaun’s magic was at work. Boston quickly built an 11-point lead, its largest of the series.
Then the biggest leprechaun of all rose to his feet, to a steady crescendo and a standing ovation. checked in with 2:41 left in the first quarter, making his first appearance since April 3. His impact was minimal — an awkward reverse layup, a steal, a foul — and the Celtics lost 5 points off their lead with O’Neal on the court.
But for a time, the Celtics were whole again. Achy and aging, but whole and still fighting.