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Reeling in Celtics’ Rajon Rondo will be key to Miami Heat’s success

It will forever be remembered in Boston as the “Elbow Game.”

The Heat trailed the Celtics by 10 points with seven minutes left in the third quarter of Game 3 of the 2011 Eastern Conference semifinals when Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo fell to the ground going for a loose ball. Rondo dislocated his left elbow trying to break his fall. The Heat rallied to win the game and then went on to win the series with victories in Games 4 and 5.

“[Rondo] wasn’t himself,” Heat point guard Mario Chalmers said Sunday, the final practice day for the Heat before the Eastern Conference finals. “Honestly, it was so long ago that I don’t really remember that, but I know he wasn’t himself.”

Chances are, the Celtics remember.

In an Eastern Conference postseason shaped by injuries to star players, it will be an injury from last season’s playoffs — Rondo’s dislocated elbow — that will serve as the backdrop to the Eastern Conference finals between the Heat and Celtics. The best-of-7 series begins at 8:30 p.m. on Monday at AmericanAirlines Arena. For the Heat, which struggled against the Celtics this season, somehow finding a way to limit Rondo will be the No.1 objective.

Much of that task will fall to Chalmers, who Wade called the Heat’s most important player in the series. Rondo, who averaged 18.7 points, 13.7 assists and 7.7 rebounds, has more postseason triple-doubles (nine) than the rest of the league combined (seven) in the same time span.

“He’s one of the biggest keys to this series,” Wade said of Chalmers. “No way around it. He has to play well for us.”

In the three games he played against the Heat this season, Rondo averaged 18.7 points, 13.6 assists and 7.7 rebounds per game. The Heat lost two of those games and finished the season 1-3 against Boston.

“No one can figure out how to defend Rondo,” LeBron James said. “He’s a unique player, a guy that breaks the defense down and creates for himself and creates for his teammates every single night.

“No one has the blueprint on how to guard him. You just try to limit his ability to score and limit his ability to find those open guys.”

The open guys, the Celtics’ “Big 3,” are likely playing their final postseason together. It’s another significant subplot to the series. Kevin Garnett, who has found his old form this postseason, carried the Celtics past the Sixers in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Boston needed seven games to eliminate the up-and-coming Philadelphia 76ers.

Garnett, who has moved from power forward to center, will keep the Heat’s rotation of big men busy. Compounding the mismatch for the Heat, center Chris Bosh, who strained an abdominal muscle in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, could be sidelined for the entire series. The Heat has not given a timetable on Bosh’s return, but the All-Star participated in a rehabilitation session with assistant coach Keith Askins and assistant athletic trainer Ray Jeffet on Sunday. Spoelstra was noncommittal about Bosh’s return.

“I’m not even preparing for that right now,” Spoelstra said. “I’m preparing for who we have in the gym. Everybody was able to do something today except for Chris.

“We have enough to win, and that’s all any of our guys should be focused on. We say that with great respect with who we’ll be facing. Garnett is a future Hall of Famer and [Brandon] Bass is a terrific shooter. They present different challenges.”

While the Heat’s postseason rivalry with the Celtics is relatively new, Boston’s rivalry with James in the playoffs has become a yearly tradition. This is the fourth time in five seasons James has faced Boston in the playoffs. The reigning MVP was 0-2 against Boston with the Cavaliers before defeating the Celtics last year with the Heat.

“I wouldn’t have it any other way, personally,’’ James said. “It’s really the only team I’m accustomed to playing in the playoffs. I’ve had them every single year. No matter where I go, I find a way to play Boston.”

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