Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are long gone, and Ray Allen is suiting up for the enemy. One constant remains with the Boston Celtics, the last man standing from those epic playoff battles with LeBron James.

Rajon Rondo hopped off the bench in the fourth quarter and jogged to the scorer's table. He entered the game with 4:01 left and the score tied at 84. In the end, Rondo had almost nothing to do with the outcome; in fact, he would say later, "I don't think I can play any worse than that."

Garnett gave the Celtics their defensive bite, and Pierce gave them their offensive bark. Allen, the first member of the Big Three to leave when he bounced to Miami in 2012, had been the beneficiary of so many slick Rondo passes, which he so skillfully redirected into the basket from behind the 3-point line.

But James always knew who gave those Celtics teams their backbone, their heartbeat.

"He's one of the better competitors we have in our league, and when he's out on the floor, he just makes everyone better," James said after the Heat held off Rondo's Celtics 93-86 on Tuesday night. "He breaks down defenses and puts guys in the position to succeed every single possession. You've got to account for him."

Even James had to admit, though, what is becoming painfully obvious to Rondo and anyone watching Rondo with his new team.

"It's different," James said.

You couldn't tell from Rondo's steely-eyed glare when he subbed into a tie game with 4:01 left that this wasn't Game 7 of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals -- couldn't tell that he wasn't jogging out there for another crack at LeBron with Garnett and Pierce at his side. Every game is like that to Rondo.

Garnett and Pierce are in Brooklyn now, of course, enduring their own struggles and adjustments. Rondo has completed three games of his comeback from ACL surgery -- all losses. In this one, he scored one single, solitary point to go with his five assists. He missed all eight of his shots from the field and three of his four free-throw attempts.

Brad Stevens, the coach who inherited Doc Rivers' job of trying to connect with one of the most headstrong stars in the NBA, offered words of empathy, not condemnation.