By A. Sherrod Blakely
MIAMI You have a total of seven players between the Boston Celtics and the Miami Heat that participated in the All-star game in February, a hard to fathom collection of great talent seldom seen in a second round playoff series.
With so much talent, proven talent over many years, there's one name that seems to keep popping up as the key in this series: Rajon Rondo.
The two-time All-star shook off some not-so-stellar play near the end of the regular season, to bounce back with a string of Rondo-esque performances that once again have the Celtics riding high in the playoffs.
Picked by some to get upset in the first round by the New York Knicks, the Celtics were the only team with a first-round sweep, as they had little trouble in disposing of the injury-riddled Knicks.
Boston had a lot of different players step up in that series, but there was no mistaking how the Knicks were Rondo'd in just about every game.
In the four games, he averaged 19 points, 12 assists and 7.3 rebounds per game.
Sure, Boston has its Big Three of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett.
And yes, all three can play really well.
But the Heat know that limiting Rondo has to be a priority.
"Rondo, we feel is the key to their team," said Miami's LeBron James. "As he goes, they go."
It certainly played out that way during the regular season when these two teams met.
Boston beat the Heat in their first three meetings this season.
Rondo didn't put up huge scoring numbers in those games, averaging just 7.7 points per game.
However, his impact could be felt in the game's tempo being completely at the pace that Boston wanted.
Rondo's ability to break down the Heat's defense opened up scoring opportunities for his teammates, which is clear to see when you notice he averaged 14.3 assists per game.
To put that in perspective, Rondo's assists average was about four fewer than the 18.5 assists per game Miami averaged as a team against Boston during the regular season.
But in the lone Celtics loss to Miami, a 100-77 defeat at Miami on April 10, Rondo had just seven points and five assists - one of his lowest assist games of the season.
Miami coach Erik Spoelstra acknowledges that combating Rondo's game will be one of the many challenges his team will face in this series.
"He does a lot of things that are unscripted; that you can't prepare for, that aren't necessarily in your scouting report,," Spoelstra said. "Arguably one of the most unique players in the league."
At 6-1 and a slight build, Rondo has shown the ability to get into the lane as a ball-handler, and surprisingly, as a rebounder as well.
Keeping him out of the paint will be one of the things Miami plans to do.
Making him become more of a jump-shooter is part of the game plan as well.
But with Rondo looking to shoot jumpers more often - and actually having some success - that strategy may not necessarily be the best one to adopt.
"He's not as bad a shooter as people say," said Heat guard Mario Chalmers, who will spend time throughout the series trying to defend Rondo. "His mid-range jumper is pretty good now."
Pretty good might be stretching it, but there's no doubt that it has improved throughout the course of this season.
Lately, Rondo has looked to mix his improved mid-range shooting skills with his usual assortment of drives to the basket and under-the-rim scoop shots.
You can see this play out in his shot attempt numbers in the playoffs (15.5 per game) being significantly more than his regular season average of 9.9 shots per game.
(Rondos) gotten more confident in his style and play, Garnett told reporters from the team's practice facility in Waltham (Mass.). Hes not afraid to hit the 15-17 foot jumper and does a good job of mixing his play. Slow, fast, fast slow; he keeps defense on their heels and we need him to be aggressive all series.
Said James: "He's a great point guard. He gets his own, and he gets those guys going and they are tough to beat."