Rondo blooms in playoffs

Years from now, when folks talk about the epic first-round, seven-game series between the Celtics and Bulls, it might be best remembered as the coming-out party for Rajon Rondo.

We all knew Rondo was good. But two years ago he was fighting with Sebastian Telfair and Delonte West for playing time. Even last spring when the Celtics were kings, Rondo had nights when he was the weak link.

No more. Against the Bulls, the 23-year old-Rondo emerged as a certified NBA star.

"He has Hall of Fame skills," said Tommy Heinsohn, who has been part of the NBA since 1956.

Hall of Fame? Rondo still hasn't made an All-Star team. But his play this series puts him in any conversation regarding elite NBA point guards. It also has made him the most despised man in Chicago since Steve Bartman.

Rondo seems to be in the middle of everything. He went mano-a-mano with All-World rookie Derrick Rose. He famously smacked Brad Miller in the face at the end of Game 5, drawing blood and winning the game with his hard (some thought dirty) foul. In Game 6, Rondo got into a dust-up with Kirk Hinrich, may have gotten away with a crucial basket interference infraction on Hinrich's blown layup, then had his shot blocked by Rose in the final seconds of the third overtime. That was also the game in which Rondo had 19 assists and zero turnovers.

"He reminds me of Cousy," said Heinsohn. "He thinks pass first. If you are on that team and get open, he gets you the ball."

Rondo was averaging a triple-double through the first six games of the series. It's hard to fathom how a 6-foot-1-inch guard can gather so many rebounds.

"He's just so strong," said Cedric Maxwell. "He's got big hands and strong hands. It makes him a great rebounder for a guard his size."

Danny Ainge gets the credit for acquiring Rondo, who played two years at Kentucky. Ainge tracked Rondo's high school team in Virginia that went 38-0 in 2003-04. Celtics consultant Jon Niednagel (a.k.a. "the Brain Doctor") and Ainge watched Rondo at Oak Hill Academy. Ainge sent scout Ryan McDonough (son of the late, great Will McDonough) to an international competition in Texas and McDonough filed a report recommending Rondo above everybody else on the court.

At the NBA's version of the draft combine, Rondo wowed everybody with his athleticism. According to Tubby Smith, who coached Rondo at Kentucky, the point guard can high-jump 7 feet and could have been the NCAA champion in the 100 meters.

On draft night in 2006, Ainge maneuvered cash, contracts, and draft picks, ultimately having his old friends in Phoenix select Rondo with the 21st pick — then trade him to Boston. In Auerbach-like fashion, Ainge even relied on the ineptitude of a predictable rival. That's right, boys and girls, Isiah Thomas had a chance to sabotage Boston's deal with Phoenix because the Knicks had the 20th pick. When Isiah passed on Rondo and selected the immortal Renaldo Balkman, Danny got his man.

"I was worried about Isiah taking him," said Ainge. "Rajon slumped a little in his second year at Kentucky, but we still had him way up there in that draft."

You might remember that Rondo battled Telfair and West for minutes in the Celtics' train-wreck season of 2006-07. Even last year, when the Celtics were on their way to banner No. 17, there were nights when Rondo seemed a little lost. He had a particularly bad Game 5 in the Finals. When the Celtics were beaten by 5 points at the Staples Center, Rondo played only 15 minutes, scoring 3 points on 1-for-7 shooting. It looked like his confidence was shot.

In Boston's clinching Game 6 annihilation of the Lakers, Rondo bounced back with 21 points, 8 assists, 7 rebounds, and 6 steals in a mere 32 minutes. It could have been a quadruple-double if he went the full 48.

The celestial play carried into this season and teammates lobbied for Rondo to make the All-Star team. It didn't happen. Cleveland's Mo Williams got the nod.

Williams is playing for a team that is favored to win the championship, but nobody had a better first round than Rajon Rondo.

These were the players drafted ahead of Rajon Rondo in 2006:

1. Andrea Bargnani (Toronto) — Emerged as a starter this season after initial struggles.

2. LaMarcus Aldridge (Chicago) — Traded to Portland on draft night, helped lead the Blazers to the playoffs this season.

3. Adam Morrison (Charlotte) — Riding the Lakers' bench after the Bobcats gave up on him.

4. Tyrus Thomas (Portland) — Traded to Chicago on draft night, provided more flash than substance until recently.

5. Shelden Williams (Atlanta) — Barely clinging to an NBA career in Minnesota, his third team in three seasons.

6. Brandon Roy (Minnesota) — Traded to Portland on draft night, so far is the best player in this draft with Rondo closing fast.

7. Randy Foye (Boston) — Traded to Minnesota on draft night, is still struggling to develop consistency.

8. Rudy Gay (Houston) — Traded to Memphis on draft night, Gay is an overburdened star on a bad team.

9. Patrick O'Bryant (Golden State) — Already traded by Golden State and Boston, his future is cloudy in Toronto.

10. Saer Sene (Seattle) — Knicks claimed him after Oklahoma City waived him this season.

11. J.J. Redick (Orlando) — Courtney Lee's injury gives former Duke star opportunity at last.

12. Hilton Armstrong (New Orleans) — Career averages of 3.6 points in 12.5 minutes.

13. Thabo Sefolosha (Philadelphia) — Traded to Chicago on draft night, has made little impact.14. Ronnie Brewer (Utah) — Former Arkansas star a solid starter for Jazz.

15. Cedric Simmons (New Orleans) — Also on his third team, barely holding on in Sacramento.

16. Rodney Carney (Chicago) — Traded to Philadelphia on draft night, has moved on to Minnesota where he contributes off the bench.

17. Shawne Williams (Indiana) — A non-factor first for the Pacers and now Dallas.

18. Oleksiy Pecherov (Washington) — Played nine minutes per game this season.

19. Quincy Douby (Sacramento) — Recently plucked from D-League by Toronto.

20. Renaldo Balkman (New York) — Reserve for the Nuggets.

Dan Shaughnessy