BOSTON (AP) -The Cleveland Cavaliers were willing to give up a big 3 by Rajon Rondo to avoid being beaten by the Big Three.
And it cost them.
The second-year point guard, who thrived this season in the shadow of his three All-Star teammates, hit a pair of 3-pointers 46 seconds apart to turn the game around on Wednesday night and help the Celtics take a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinals.
``He was definitely the X-factor,'' Cavaliers forward LeBron James said after Boston's 96-89 victory sent him back to Cleveland for a must-win Game 6. ``When they were down, he hit two 3s. That's something defensively that we wanted to give up. ... Without Rondo, it would have been a much tougher game for them to win. He was definitely the player of the game.''
The Celtics underwent one of the most dramatic overhauls in NBA history last summer, bringing in Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to join mainstay Paul Pierce in a sort of Big Three 2.0. The only questions going into the season were whether the three stars would be able to share the ball, and whether Rondo would be able to handle the pressure of getting it to them.
Rondo, who started 25 games the previous year as a rookie, developed into a dependable point guard and averaged over 10 points, five assists and four rebounds. But he also showed he could do more, averaging about 16 points, seven rebounds and 5.4 assists when Garnett missed nine games in the middle of the season with an abdominal strain.
``We pretty much have given him the keys all year,'' Celtics coach Doc Rivers said.
But there's one place Rondo wasn't much of a threat: He made just five 3-pointers during the regular season, and he was 2-for-7 in Boston's first seven playoff games. He also missed his first try from beyond the arc on Wednesday night, though it was a buzzer beater at the end of the first period.
So it was no surprise that the Cavaliers didn't consider him a threat from long range.
``They've got some players on their team that we want to take some things away, and that's going to give other guys an opportunity to step up and make some plays,'' Cavaliers coach Mike Brown said. ``And I thought Rondo made some plays.''
The Cavaliers led 43-29 when Rondo set up a Garnett jumper with 3:30 left in the half. The next time down, Garnett returned the favor. Rondo spotted up for the 3 and he did it again on Boston's next possession as the Celtics made it a three-point game at halftime, then took the lead early in the third quarter.
``We had a lead. I thought we were playing good basketball. I thought we were moving the ball and we were poised,'' Brown said. ``And Rondo comes down on two occasions, he's wide open, he buries that shot. And that's the shot that we've been giving him. ... But he stepped up and knocked it down.''
Rondo said he had to take the first one because the shot clock was running down. ``The second one was in a transition fast break and I just hit one so I thought why not shoot the second one,'' he said.
``I've got to stay aggressive and make them respect me. That's what I've been working on. This series I've missing a lot of those shots, I usually make them and want to stay confident and shoot my shot.''
Rivers' game plan calls for Rondo to make plays: That could mean dishing it to one of his more illustrious teammates, or driving to the basket and forcing the defense to commit, or even taking it all the way if the opponent allows.
Or, it could mean standing out at the point and firing away.
``That's gravy, obviously,'' the coach said on Thursday. ``If they're going to leave him open, I want him to shoot it. But I don't want him to look for it.''
Rondo scored 20 points with 13 assists and just one turnover - by far the best game of Rondo's playoffs, and maybe even the best of his career. He also had two blocked shots - one off his career-high - jumping so hard to block Delonte West in the second half that he had to pull his shorts back up.
At one point in the third quarter, Rivers looked out on the floor and saw Rondo bent over tugging on his shorts - the telltale sign of a tired player. Rivers told Rondo to keep putting pressure on the defense, and Rondo seemed to realize then that, unlike during the regular season, he was going to need to do that all game.
``He's right now starting to understand that this is hard,'' Rivers said. ``It's tougher than anything he's ever done.''

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