BOSTON — John Havlicek against the 76ers.
Larry Bird against the Pistons.
When Rajon Rondo intercepted a Hawks pass in the final seconds of Game 5, he had a chance to add to the list of memorable Celtics playoff steals.
Then he fumbled it away.
“I hate that the game ended the way that it ended,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said after Atlanta held on for an 87-86 victory in Game 5 of their first-round playoff series to force a sixth game in Boston on Thursday night. “I thought that Rondo willed us back into the game. He really did.”
Rondo already had 13 points and 12 assists when he grabbed his fifth steal of the game, intercepting an inbounds pass from Al Horford to Josh Smith with 10.9 seconds left and Atlanta leading by one. Boston had no timeouts left, so Rondo moved up the court along the left side, where Horford trapped him.
Kevin Garnett stepped back to receive the pass, but Rondo lost control of the ball and Smith tipped it away as the buzzer sounded.
“My heart was racing a hundred miles an hour on the last sequence,” Hawks coach Larry Drew said. “We didn’t make a smart play inbounding the ball, but I’m glad (Smith) had the presence of mind on the last play to step up on Rondo when he came flying up the court.”
The Celtics have a record 17 NBA titles and a lot of history over the years, and steals are prominent among their most memorable plays. Johnny Most’s call of “Havlicek stole the ball!” in the 1965 Eastern Conference finals against Philadelphia is one of the most famous in sports history, and Bird’s steal against Isiah Thomas to beat Detroit during the 1987 playoffs was just as impressive.
Rondo’s steal had the potential to be remembered just as fondly, especially after he took control of the game during a 10-0 run that cut a 12-point deficit to a single basket at the end of the third quarter.
Instead, it all went for naught.
“I cornered myself,” Rondo said. “Give Al credit. I just didn’t come up with the shot.”
Although Rondo’s outside shooting has always been the weakest part of his game — he was 6-for-17 from the floor on Tuesday — he made 8 of 11 shots in Game 4 and Horford considered him dangerous.
“I didn’t want to lose the series in that way, with him hitting a jumper over me or something like that,” Horford said. “So you’re fighting for your life out there. My thing was to force him to pass the ball, to bottle him up the best I could and then Josh made a great deflection.”
Rivers, a former point guard himself, said he thought Rondo should have gone up the middle of the court instead of the sideline. And he wanted Rondo to drive toward the hoop, instead of setting up on the perimeter.
“I was hoping he would attack the basket, but he lost control of the ball and that blew up any chance that we had,” Rivers said. “We didn’t capitalize on the situation.”
The Celtics will have another chance on Thursday night, and this time they can close the Hawks out in Boston. Game 7 would be in Atlanta on Saturday, if necessary, but the Celtics would surely like to finish it up early to rest their aging stars.
Rivers and Drew both gave their teams the day off on Wednesday to rest.
After missing almost three weeks with bone spurs in his ankle Ray Allen returned for Game 3 and has avoided any setbacks. Paul Pierce tweaked his left knee in Game 4, but he said it wasn’t bothering him much on Tuesday.
The Hawks, meanwhile, are getting healthier.
Horford played in Game 4 — his first action since January — and was back in the starting lineup for the fifth game, scoring 19 points with 11 rebounds. Smith, whose sore knee knocked him out of Game 3, had 13 points and 16 rebounds.
“I know Josh is still having a little discomfort in his knee but he is playing through the pain,” Drew said. “I think everybody else is fine.”