Continued from page 1

Well, actually, the tone is set by Rajon Rondo, the otherworldly point guard who is performing like someone who got a huge mulligan in these playoffs. He was kicked out of the very first postseason game against Atlanta for bumping an official, and had to serve a suspension in Game 2. But the short-handed Celtics managed to win that contest, which was essentially the margin of their six-game triumph over the Hawks.

Since then, Rondo has played like he’s still trying to make up for losing his temper. He’s averaging 17.4 points, 11.9 rebounds and 6.8 rebounds in the playoffs, carrying the Celtics on his younger, stronger back much of the time.

But ceding the spotlight to Rondo is perhaps the greatest measure of the Big Three’s greatness.

Sure, they’re all still key performers, just not as much as they were during Boston’s last championship run in 2008. When it’s time to get out of the way and let Rondo work his magic, that’s what they do. Which explains why they’re six wins shy of a championship, even with Pierce fouling out in three of the last five games.

“Last year, we would’ve been out of the playoffs already,” Rivers said. “It just wasn’t the same. We weren’t a team. This is a team. We’re very close, very competitive. I think they kind of understand now that Rondo is the leader of the team. Everyone else plays off Rondo.”

Boston has to like its position. This is the ninth time the Big Three has gone to a Game 5 tied at two games apiece. Their record up to now: 8-0.

Of course, only one of those wins was on the road, which is where they’ll be playing Tuesday night. And winning Game 5 is not even a guarantee of ultimate success, since the Celtics went on to lose twice after going up 3-2. But that one road win, interestingly enough, came against James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010.

If the Celtics knock off James’ new team in another Game 5, we have no doubt they’ll wrap up the series, and a trip to the NBA Finals, two nights later.

Rivers keeps insisting that he never tries to spur on his trio of aging stars by reminding them what awaits. He doesn’t have to. They’re wise enough to realize that time marches on and it’s running out on them, as it will for all of us.

But this could be one of those rare times _ like George Foreman winning a heavyweight title in his 40s, or Jack Nicklaus willing himself to one last Masters title _ when resolve wins out over reason. There’s nothing logical about the Heats losing this series to the Celtics. But, with each passing day, we can envision it happening.

What is more important, the Celtics can envision it, too.

Time is standing still, if only for a moment.

“I just think they’re playing hard and great because they believe they can win,” Rivers said. “I figure guys like that have a pride in themselves anyway and don’t really need me to say anything.”

___

Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or http://www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963