Rondo Phone Home
Rajon Rondo has always been good, but against the Knicks he perhaps showed us where he is heading.
by Matt Domino / @PuddlesofMyself
Rajon Rondo is an alien. I mean that in the best way possible. He has freakishly large hands, abnormally long arms and moves around the basketball court getting his shot at angles that most “human” players can’t get to. Watching Rajon Rondo play basketball is a joy.
The New York Knicks beat the Boston Celtics 106-104 on Christmas Day, the NBA’s opening day of its shortened ‘11-12 season. It was the first game of the season and one small step in what will be a grueling 66-game season.
A lot will be made of the renewed Celtics-Knicks rivalry and how Garnett “choked” Billy Walker at the end of the game; and how the feud will escalate once Baron Davis and Paul Pierce join the fray. That’s all fine, because Boston and New York are both good teams that are still gelling and can both get even better. But the fact that was clearly evident in Sunday’s game was that Rajon Rondo took his game to another level.
We first thought Rondo took a leap during the 2010 Playoffs. The Celtics were the 3-seed in the East and they were on their “last legs.” Then, against the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, Rondo emerged as the clear “best” player on the Celtics. Pierce may have been the best playmaker, Allen the best shooter and perhaps the most clutch, and Garnett the best defender, but Rondo was the engine who made it all work.
He was younger, and at that point in his career had the most talent. So, he put up lines like 13-4-19 in Game 2, 29-18-13 in Game 4, and 21-3-12 in Game 6. He was arguably the best player in that series. Then against Orlando in the Eastern Conference Finals he put on a point guard clinic, including the defining moment in Game 3 when Rondo ran the length of the court to beat Jason Williams to the loose ball, got up, beat Williams off the dribble and laid it in with typical Rondo alien grace. Against the Lakers in the Finals, Rondo’s limitations were tested by the Lakers as they dared him to shoot jumpers. When he drove, they fouled him and made him go to the line where he couldn’t hit free throws. Rondo became hesitant and the Celtics lost the series. We realized that Rondo perhaps had not become what we wanted him to be.
Last season, Rondo started the season on pace to break John Stockton’s record for assist average in a season. Again, he seemed to be the best player on the Celtics, the player who made the whole team work, who made the whole team better. But it still seemed like he didn’t want to shoot, and he still couldn’t make foul shots. Then, the Celtics traded Perkins, the team faltered, Rondo dislocated his arm against the Heat in the Playoffs but still played better than only a handful of point guards and the Celtics were unceremoniously kicked out of the Playoffs by Miami.
Right before the ‘11-12 season started, rumors about Boston trading Rondo to New Orleans began to swirl. Eventually they subsided, but we wondered if Rondo, a notoriously moody and enigmatic player, would be affected by the trade talk, just as he was affected by the Perkins trade the year before. Sunday’s performance against the New York Knicks put all of those concerns to rest.
The Celtics came out slow and they looked old and out of synch compared to the amped up and very talented Knicks. Rondo was the only bright spot in the first quarter and for much of the second quarter. Then, as the game neared halftime, Rondo began taking over. He found Brandon Bass for jumpers, tried to get Ray Allen his shot, got Garnett open looks. The shot weren’t all falling, but Rondo was swatting balls on defense, grabbing rebounds, getting open in transition for easy layups. He was dictating the game in his classic Rondo style, which is to say, his unique style.
The difference in all this was that Rondo was consistently making jump shots. He wasn’t just consistently making them, but it seemed like he wanted to take them. He had an edge to him that he had flashed many times before, but now it remained for nearly the entire game. He wanted to make the defense pay for underrating him, it was almost as if he wanted to make Danny Ainge pay for underrating him, or make Chris Paul pay, simply for being Chris Paul and being the best point guard in the NBA.
When Rondo made a thrilling, basically no one else in the League can make this pass, to Marquis Daniels in the third quarter I just smiled and shook my head, because that’s the Rondo I know and love; that’s the Rondo who is perhaps the first player since Allen Iverson to have a move named after him (the patented drive, hold the ball out, flash it behind the back, then make a swooping layup with an insane amount of spin on it so that the ball hesitates on the rim and falls gently in). But I was greatly impressed when, in the fourth quarter, with the Knicks threatening, Rondo controlled the ball, passed it around, got it back, surveyed his options and coolly drained a 19 foot jump shot.
In the end, the Celtics lost because Rondo deferred to Garnett and Allen in the fourth quarter and they both had rough fourth quarters. Rondo finished with a typical “great” Rondo line of 31-5-13-5, but it was the way he got to 31 points, with a mixture of dribble drives, savvy transition plays, knock down jumpers and efficiency (9-12) from the line, that was impressive.
Sunday’s game may just be one game in a long, compressed season. And we have been fooled by Rondo before. But in an era when we long for players like Jordan, Magic and Larry who took the summer to add a new move or nuance to their game; in an era when we long for LeBron James to play from the post, it is hard not to be excited by the prospect of Rajon Rondo trusting his jump shot and his foul shooting.
In his four years in the League, he has flashed out of this universe brilliance and beauty on the court and then taken a seeming step back. Perhaps now in his fifth season, with his value challenged and questioned, Rajon Rondo is truly making that huge step forward.
If all of this is true, if he was an alien before, I have no idea what he is going to become.