BOSTON — His left arm wrapped in a sleeve and dangling lifelessly by his side, Rajon Rondo broke for the basket and sailed past LeBron James for a layup.
The dislocated elbow and stiff back weren’t going to stop him.
Rondo still had one good arm — and his legs.
The Celtics point guard had 11 assists in the game and a pair of one-armed baskets in the fourth quarter on Saturday night to lead Boston to a 97-81 victory over the Miami Heat in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“He showed he’s a really tough young individual,” said Kevin Garnett, who had 28 points and 18 rebounds — more than he had in the first two games combined. “I don’t know what he’s going to be like when he’s 35, but right now he’s playing pretty well.”
Miami leads the best-of-seven series 2-1, with Game 4 on Monday night in Boston.
Paul Pierce scored 27 for the defending East champions, who managed to avoid a 3-0 hole that no NBA team has ever overcome. But they came out of it with injuries to both point guards: Coach Doc Rivers said Rondo’s future availability is in question, and Delonte West had his bruised left shoulder wrapped at the end of the game.
“The playoffs are here. This is what it’s about: Bruises, whatever, you’ve got to keep on going,” West said. “I think that light clicked on for us today.”
Dwyane Wade had 23 points and seven assists, and Joel Anthony continued to contribute off the bench, scoring 12 with 11 rebounds. Playing in the building where his Cleveland career came to an end, spurring his free agency defection to Miami, James scored 15 points as he and Wade combined to make just 14 of 35 shots from the floor.
Wade was also the one who fouled Rondo in the third quarter as the two got tangled up and crashed to the court. Rondo landed awkwardly on his left arm; he had to be helped to his feet and led from the floor while team Dr. Brian McKeon immobilized Rondo’s arm.
But even as the Celtics were announcing that Rondo had a dislocated left elbow, he was back on the bench. He returned for the start of the fourth and — despite playing with his left arm dangling at his side — provided the Celtics with the spark they had been missing in the first two games.
“We understand fully now how tough it is to take down a champion,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “All this fuel, the last three days, that was going on, I was cringing. Because you know this is a proud group, and you knew they would have a response.”
After two sloppy games in Miami in which it unraveled at the end, Boston provided its first real resistance in the series, jumping to a 16-7 lead in the opening minutes. The Heat came back in the second quarter to take the lead, but the Celtics posted a dominating second half, with Rondo as their emotional leader.
Returning to the Celtics’ bench at the end of the third quarter, Rondo received a standing ovation from the crowd when a picture of him on the bench was shown on the scoreboard.
“The first report was ‘dislocated — out,’ basically for good,” Rivers said. “Thirty seconds later, I was in the huddle and I saw Rondo walk by me, and it looked like he was going to play. Clearly, that got everyone excited. It was awesome to see him back out on the floor.”
Rondo was obviously favoring his left arm when he returned, but that didn’t stop him from a right-handed dunk after a steal and breakaway with 8:39 left that gave Boston an 81-63 lead. Two minutes later he drove in and laid it up over James.
He finished with six points, four of them in the fourth quarter.
“I didn’t have to do much scoring — just directing,” he said. “That’s using your mouth, using my legs.”
Miami led 46-44 at the half, but the Celtics scored nine of the first 10 points, capped by Rondo’s first basket of the game, a driving layup with 3 minutes gone in the third that gave Boston a 53-47 lead. In all, the Celtics scored 16 of the first 20 points of the second half; James missed three of four free throws during the span, and the only other points came on a 3-pointer by Wade.
Shaquille O’Neal returned for Boston and was not much of a factor. He scored two points, with zero rebounds, in 8:29 for his first action of the postseason.
Notes: During a second-quarter timeout, the Celtics played a video honoring the American military. The biggest cheer was for the logo of Seal Team Six, which carried out the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. … Red Sox players Josh Beckett, John Lackey, Dustin Pedroia, Josh Bard and Jacoby Ellsbury were at the game. So was Bruins forward Milan Lucic. … Pierce, Ray Allen and Garnett scored the Celtics’ first 23 points. Pierce led the way with 12, hitting three free throws after drawing a foul while attempting a 3-pointer then hitting from beyond-the-arc. … West, who was playing with a bruised shoulder, scored 10 points in the first half.