The Celtics will open the third round of the NBA playoffs in Miami against the Heat on Monday night.
Rondo scored nine straight Boston points, helping the Celtics turn a three-point edge into a double-digit lead after Paul Pierce fouled out with 4:16 left in the game.
Andre Iguodala scored 18 points, and Elton Brand and Jrue Holiday had 15 apiece for the 76ers, who eliminated the top-seeded Chicago Bulls in the first round but couldn’t do the same with the Celtics.
Kevin Garnett had 18 points and 13 rebounds, and Ray Allen hit a pair of fourth-quarter 3-pointers after missing his first five attempts. Pierce had 15 points and nine rebounds before fouling out.
That’s when Rondo took over.
The point guard, rebounding from his worst performance of the playoffs in Game 6, scored on a baseline drive and followed it up with a long 2-pointer (originally scored a 3) with 2:47 left. Then he made a 3-pointer with a little more than 2 minutes left to make it a 10-pont game and, after Brand scored on a tip-in, Rondo went to the line as the crowd chanted “M-V-P! M-V-P!” and hit a pair of free throws to leave Boston with an 80-70 lead with 1:44 left.
The Celtics will now face the actual NBA MVP — LeBron James — along with Dwyane Wade and the rest of the Heat. Miami advanced to the conference finals by eliminating the Indiana Pacers in six games.
Miami beat Boston in five games in the conference semifinals last year. In 2010, the Celtics eliminated the Heat in the first round and then knocked James and the Cavaliers out in the second — his final game with Cleveland before defecting to Miami.
Philadelphia had one last chance to cut the deficit with 100 seconds to play after Holiday made a 3-pointer to cut it to seven points. Pierce was left with nothing to do but cheerlead, waving his arms to encourage the crowd as Garnett went to the line with just under a minute left.
He made one of two, but Holiday lost the ball on the way to the basket and Rondo made a pair of free throws with 54 seconds left and then Allen made a pair as the crowd chanted “Beat the Heat!”
Jodie Meeks’ 3-pointer rimmed out, the ball bounced to the floor and Rondo got his hands on it for his 10th rebound. He chucked it over his head into the frontcourt, where the Celtics dribbled down the 24-second clock.
Pierce picked up two fouls seven seconds apart with about 8 minutes to play, then his fifth with 5:16 left. Coach Doc Rivers left him in, and Pierce picked up No. 6 a minute later — a charging call against Thaddeus Young out by the free throw line.
Boston got off to a fast start, taking a 10-2 lead thanks to four assists and two rebounds from Rondo in the first 3 minutes. The Sixers tied it before the end of the quarter, but the Celtics again pulled ahead and took a 41-33 lead into the half.
The lead grew to 11 before the Sixers scored seven straight points and then, trailing 53-45, they scored another seven in a row to cut the deficit to a point. Garnett made a high floater at the buzzer to give Boston a 55-52 lead at the end of three quarters.
NOTES: The Celtics missed their first 14 attempts from 3-point range and made their last three. ... Seven of the first nine fouls were called against the Celtics. ... It was the 25th anniversary of Larry Bird’s steal, and pass to Dennis Johnson, on Isiah Thomas’ inbounds pass to beat Detroit in the 1987 playoffs. ... CNN anchor John King, a Boston native, took in the game from courtside. ... Philadelphia shot 28 percent from the floor in the first half.