Chief among those he credits is head coach Doc Rivers, whose “man’s man” coaching style stresses intelligence. As a former floor leader himself, Rivers didn’t take any short cuts when it came to Rondo’s learning curve.
“Coach played 12, 13 years and he’s been coaching almost as long, and with all the experience he has to offer, I almost don’t have a choice but to listen to him,” Rondo says. “He’s been an All-Star in his career and he’s a great X-and-O coach. He draws up a lot of plays out of time-outs and we do a great job of executing them. Obviously, because he was a point guard, that’s why he was so hard on me. It was a little bit of everything. There wasn’t any one thing in particular that he focused on, but there was always something. No matter how good I played, he stayed on me to keep me humble and keep me consistent.”
During the Celtics championship run in ’08, KG was the defensive catalyst, but now he shares that distinction with Rondo. As soon as an opponent lets go of the ball and it gets near the other player—BOOM! Rondo steps in front. Or if an opponent does get the rock in the post or the elbow, he comes from his blind side and strips him. He’ll also harass man-to-man. It doesn’t seem to matter to him.
“The first thing I look at is what play the other point guard is calling. (Assistant) Coach (Lawrence) Frank does a great job of going over scouting reports, so I pretty much know what the other players are doing. There’s only a few plays the teams in the NBA run differently, pretty much it’s the same sets,” he explains. “So I do a great job picking out the plays and knowing how to get into the passing lanes. I try to call out plays so my teammates can have an advantage and we can make plays and get stops on the defensive end. It depends on the match-up—if a point guard has a high-scoring wing man, then he’s not gonna take many shots. He’ll defer to that guy so I’ll gamble more. But you gotta respect your opponent, so I pick and choose the right times, because if I miss, then I’ll hear it from Coach. So it’s a thin line.”
Rondo still doesn’t have a legit jumper, so teams occasionally slump off him to focus on other players. He compensates by getting to the paint, where his skill-set amplifies to include a bunch of trick plays. Rondo’s definitely athletic, but he’s not a freak-level athlete, so his game is mostly mental. While discussing the particulars of his offensive game, we both come to the comical conclusion that other players just aren’t watching enough tape of him.
“Yeah, its all the same moves. I know that one move in particular (the fake-one-way-scoop-lay-up-the-other-way), I don’t know why they fall for it each time,” he says. “I don’t know if I do a great job of selling it, but they should know by now that when I get down there on the baseline, I’ma do the same things. I created all these crazy shots on my own. In college I could play with the bigs, but here in the League, every guy has a 40-inch vertical and is 6-10 so I have to use trick shots.”
The system the Celtics run doesn’t have an iconic name like the Triangle Offense, but that shouldn’t make it any less memorable. It’s based on passing—interior and perimeter—and focuses not only on getting guys open shots but on getting preferred location open shots. You rarely see the Celtics players taking forced shots from uncomfortable spots on the floor. The ability to differentiate who gets the ball and when they get it is what separates Rondo from other point guards.
Says Rajon happily, “No matter what I’m going with, who’s open and what shot is available, Ray can pretty much shoot from anywhere. Paul likes to get his feet set but he can shoot from anywhere, too. He probably has more confidence shooting the three now then ever. I also look for Kevin and Shaq in the post. The most exciting part of this is when guys have it going and I can just sit back and watch them. When KG is catching lobs and guys are shooting threes, its fun.”
Swagger is the most overused word in sports today. Sportswriters have made that word impotent by using it to describe every guy who has an interesting haircut. The Celtics, however, have swagger for days. Four first-ballot Hall of Famers, plus known guys like Nate Robinson and Kendrick Perkins (though injured, he is still very much a part of this team) give Boston a high level of confidence. They talk smack amongst themselves, take bows on opposing teams’ courts and still remind people that their starting five has still never lost a Playoff series. If you’re going to be the point guard on this team, you’re going to have to tell some high-minded men “no,” and often. Rondo is just as competitive but much more reserved, and his Teddy Roosevelt-like Big Stick mentality is crucial to running a team like this.
“I want those guys to have fun playing with me and feel relaxed. I want to add a couple of years to their careers so they don’t have to take 29 shots in a game and can focus on being more efficient,” he says. “People think it’s hard deciding who to throw it to, but what helps me is that everybody is so unselfish. If they were selfish guys, then it would be much more challenging. Guys make sacrifices and, for the most part, they never complain. Obviously all the guys want the ball in crunch time and, really, any great player wants the ball then. But it’s up to me to figure it out.”
These are magnificent days for late-night conversations about NBA point guards. So at the end of the interview, I drop the best PG in the League question on him. To his credit, he accepts the challenge. In fact, he gets excited.
“If you need someone to run the show, then I’m the best in the League,” he says. “There are a lot of good point guards in this League and there might be other guys who can play with this team, I don’t know. But if you ask the guys here who they want to play with, I’m sure they’ll say me. If you ask Kevin, Ray…Look, I don’t want to put words in guys’ mouths, but I’m sure they’ll say me.”