MIAMI — Maestro, magician, enigma, visionary, ringmaster.
Rajon Rondo is hard to describe.
Con artist, contortionist, inventor, aviator.
But delectable to watch.
Rondo plays basketball the way jazzmen make music.
He improvises. He links unpredictable moves together like Thelonious Monk linked unorthodox notes together, creating a string of pearls. He ventures off on solos but always comes back to harmonize with his bandmates.
The Miami Heat could not silence Rondo’s virtuoso performance in the first half of Wednesday’s Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals. They used canny defensive methods to prevent him from soaring for most of the second. But Rondo led Boston into overtime and his remarkable riffs kept things suspenseful to the very end of Miami’s 115-111 victory.
Rondo, Boston’s sublime point guard, finished with a career high of 44 points, and added 10 assists and eight rebounds. He tallied 22, seven and four in the first half, which Boston dominated.
He played every second of a game full of dizzying reversals.
When the Heat was sighing with relief and AmericanAirlines Arena spectators were heading for the aisles, Rondo swished two three-pointers to keep alive Boston’s hopes of stealing one game in Miami.
With Rondo at the wheel Boston’s Big Three did not look like the “aging Celtics.”
He found his creases, his tunnels and fifth-dimension planes. He found his teammates’ sweet spots that had been shut off in Game 1.
He defended LeBron James on the last-second jump shot in regulation that bonked off the glass, sending the game into overtime.
He juked past James and sped by Dwyane Wade for a two-point lead early in overtime, then sank a long jumper and two free throws - and should have been allotted two more free throws after getting swiped in the head by Wade. He tried to compensate for the absence of Paul Pierce, who fouled out.
In the end, Rondo’s marathon effort was not quite enough. The Heat will take a 2-0 series lead to Boston for Friday’s Game 3.
The Heat knew Mondo Rondo would be their primary matchup problem against Boston. Love him or hate him, Miami fans got a treat Wednesday - Rondo at his best.
For much of the game, the Heat had no solution for him. Guard him too close and he slithers right by you. Guard him too far and he has room to pass or shoot.
He mixed his usual acrobatic drives with a surprising array of jump shots and those uncharacteristic three-pointers.
“He has to keep doing that,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said of Rondo. “We need to get Kevin more involved. We had a lot of empty possessions. There are things we can fix, and we will.”
Rondo took a kick-out pass from Paul Pierce and hit a pivotal jumper to extend Boston’s lead to five and stall Miami’s comeback with less than five minutes to play.
After Udonis Haslem’s baseline jumper capped a 9-0 run that put Miami ahead 98-94, Rondo countered with an assist to Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen nailed a three-pointer to tie with 34.3 seconds left.
The Celtics had squandered a 15-point lead. As has been the case throughout the playoffs, the Heat found its groove in the third quarter, scoring 35 points on a multitude of blazing sprints triggered by equally spectacular defense.
“You let them make a run now answer with a run,” Rivers told his team in a timeout huddle.
Rondo, 26, has nine postseason triple-doubles in his career. He’s a good bet to surpass the superstar of versatility, Magic Johnson, who had 30.
“I wish we had the book on how to do it,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of the strategy for stopping Rondo. “It was obviously an abomination in the first half.”
In the second half, the Heat used Mario Chalmers less on Rondo and tried to confound Rondo with different defenders and swarming double teams. James got the initial assignment - and that resulted in Pierce beating Shane Battier for a dunk. James had defended every position during the playoffs and he might have to guard Tony Parker down the road.
But the Heat’s adjustments took their toll on Rondo, who couldn’t attack the way he had earlier. He was forced into two sloppy turnovers and failed to calm the reeling Celtics as Miami’s lead grew to eight.
“What it speaks to is his competitiveness,” Spoelstra said. “Whatever that team needs, he’s able to do. Somehow we were able to withstand his incredible game.”
Does Rondo have another one in him? If Boston’s Pierce, Garnett and Allen are to win another title, Rondo will have to keep playing beautiful music.