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The most recent Celtics title team wouldn’t have won a ring without Rajon Rondo running point. If this new iteration of the Celtics is going to mimic that success, you can bet Rondo will be in the middle of it again.
by May 28, 2014
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Rajon Rondo’s postgame-shower routine is the stuff of legend. He gets out of his gear, walks to the shower and washes off all the inadvertent elbows, hip thrusts and cheap shots that went uncalled during the game. Everybody does this. Still, somehow, Rondo’s routine is different.

After showering, the 6-1 guard inches back to his locker. He meticulously puts on each article of clothing, laces up his designer shoes and, well, heads right back to the shower area. Did he forget his lotion? Did somebody call his name? Nobody really knows. But you can almost read the befuddled look across the media’s collective face: OK, he looks finished. We can approach him now. Oh, wait. False alarm.

It’s almost like Rondo’s playing a cruel version of cat and mouse with the writers. Some nights he’ll tally a triple-double in a Boston Celtics win, but he won’t say a word to journalists. Other evenings he’ll have six or seven turnovers in a loss, and he’ll answer whatever questions you ask. Rajon Rondo may have been a social work major at the University of Kentucky, but he’s got the art of unpredictability down to a science.

But that’s Rondo. Every move he makes is a calculated one. If you’re in the locker room with a media badge around your neck, whatever you do, don’t look too anxious. If you do, he’s going to take two extra minutes getting ready. Same goes for opposing guards—if you’ve got a tendency to lean in one direction when you drive, he’ll know that months in advance from scouting reports. Rondo’s speed and cunning are well documented. It’s his intellect that warrants more ink.

Take a March outing between his Celts and the Brooklyn Nets, for example. Lots of meaty subplots to the game—the resurgent Nets had won seven of their last 10 games; Paul Pierce’s return to Boston—but none of that seemed of interest to Rondo.

“I know Deron is very aggressive offensively,” says Rondo, obviously referring to Nets guard Deron Williams. “I wanted to go back at him offensively. I try not to force anything. I stay aggressive on guys like Deron, aggressive guys or score-first point guards. I put them on their heels and try to attack, but never force anything and let the game come to you.” Rondo finishes with 20 points, 9 assists, 7 rebounds and a W.

Rondo adds, “You gotta outwork the next person. For me, I like to out-think my opponent. The game is 80 percent mental and 20 percent physical. We’re all gifted athletes. We’re all gifted players. But can you out-think the man? I look at it like a chess match when I’m out there playing against my opponent. I always try to be two steps ahead. I’m always vocal. Always keep working. Never settle. Break down a lot of film when you get a chance to and keep grinding.”

If you want to talk intelligently about Xs and Os, Rondo’s with you. Dip off into menial conversation about alleged beefs with ex-coaches and tiffs with ex-teammates and he’s going to look you square in the face, nary blink an eye, and offer a “yeah,” “nope” or some other colorless one-word response. He’s not copping an attitude or being rude; it’s more “Man, I’ve been out here giving it to cats for 48 minutes and all you can think to ask me is, ‘Do I miss KG?!’”

So, if you want to have a feature story that’s longer than a tweet, you stay away from those kinds of questions. In a season like this—one where Rondo returns to action after missing the first 40 games of the season due to rehab from a torn ACL suffered in January 2013—you go another way. You ask how he’s holding up. You ask if all of the defeats have started to take a mental toll.

“It hasn’t been too tough,” admits Rondo, whose Celtics missed the Playoffs for the first time since 2007. “I’ve always been able to get up and go and play. Going through this ACL process made me mentally tougher. It humbled me as well. It didn’t break me, so I was able to come back stronger. I took my time. I was patient. I’m just going to take my time and still get better.”

Over the last five weeks of the regular season, you could certainly see the pre-injury Rondo starting to rear his twitchy, which-way-did-he-go head. There was an 18-assist game on March 9. His first triple-double of the year came on April 4. There were even four separate occasions where he dropped at least three three-pointers.

Yeah, bloggers and Boston haters, you read that right: While you were off calling Rondo an overrated point guard who couldn’t shoot the three, Rondo was getting his long ball in order. And while he’ll be the first to admit that his J still needs work, the practice is paying off.

“You could say that,” says Rondo. He shot 51 percent in the month of April. “There’s only so much you can do [when you’re rehabbing]. You can’t run. You can stand there and shoot the ball. I was able to get up a lot of shots this past year. I continue to work every day with [Celtics assistant] coach Ron Adams. I’ve been focused on [shooting], but it’s not my primary focus. I just want to continue getting healthy and let the game come. I’m taking a lot more threes this year than I ever have as a Celtic. I’m shooting the ball with confidence. Shooting when I’m open, believing that it’s going in.”

But for the Boston Celtics to compete in 2014-15, it’s going to take more than a few more looks from deep. In the 28-year-old Rondo, of course, they have a four-time All-Star captain who’s under contract through next year. In 37-year-old Brad Stevens, they have a young coach who’ll be just fine after another year of NBA seasoning. In 27-year-old Jeff Green and 22-year-old Jared Sullinger, they have a pair of forwards who cause a multitude of headaches on the court. There’s a solid nucleus in New England, no doubt. Should Boston GM Danny Ainge grab a big man and a big-time scorer in the offseason, this Celtics’ stumble will be short-lived.

Rondo just hopes the team has “more heart” written down on its summer shopping list, too. “We just have to play hard every night,” he says. “Go out there with the mentality that we can win every game, regardless of our record. Those guys put their shoes and shorts on just like we do. We gotta outwork our opponent and anything can happen.”

That’s the frustration talking. Two seasons ago, the Cs were in the Eastern Conference Finals. Two years before that, the NBA Finals. Two years before that, Rondo, KG, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen were world champs. Rondo isn’t happy with how things are going. Everybody sees it.

“When you’re in the middle of your prime, like Rondo is, and you’re frustrated with the losing,” Pierce told the Boston Globe, “it’s about just staying patient, staying with the guys, helping them develop, helping them get better…At times, things don’t always go your way, and you want everything to be better right away, but you understand it’s a process.”

On April 9, things almost boiled over. It was a back-and-forth affair in Atlanta with the pesky Hawks. Boston worked its way to a pretty comfortable spot in the second half, even building a 9-point lead with under six minutes in the fourth quarter. Defensive deficiencies in transition and other mental lapses sealed their fate, though. Final: 105-97, Hawks. Another loss in a season of tough losses.

After another trademark post-game shower routine, Rondo says, “You can’t keep saying the same thing. We gotta continue to run through the finish line and close games better. This is the second game where we had a big lead and we let the team back in it by not getting back and getting stops. And offensively, just starting with myself, we turned the ball over.”

Reporter: “How do you end the season on a positive note?”

Rondo: “Get some wins.”

Damn. Dumb question.

But it’s not all contentious between Rondo and the media. In fact, he actually had a pretty dope media campaign going with American Express and the NBA around the season’s midpoint. The promotion was called “Off the Court,” and it gave basketball fans a chance to see a side of their favorite players they didn’t get from TNT broadcasts. Chris Bosh did a piece that centered around cooking. Joakim Noah talked about his love of traveling.  Rondo discussed the one thing he dug more than fooling a power forward with one of his famous scoop lay-ups—fashion.

As an extension of Rondo’s “Off the Court” segment, there was a “Style Challenge” contest where the preppy guard got to pick two fashion-forward fans to join him for part of a game day in Boston. We’re told the interaction was super cool between Rondo and the winners, Brandon Marrone and Sherrell McLean. We don’t know officially because we weren’t invited to see for ourselves. With too many writers and recorders around, Rondo couldn’t be his authentic self.

“I like to switch it up,” Rajon would say a bit later that same night. “I think style is mixing it up. Throw on the suits, throw on the cardigans and, you know, certain winter jackets especially here in Boston. I mean, you get to switch it up a lot. I love winter coats. I love different jackets, different blazers, so it gives you a lot of chances to mix it up [with the weather] being so cold. You get to layer up. You know, scarfs, sweaters, etc.”

So, when Rondo goes from an all-gray sweatsuit and matching skullcap one night to a black button-up, matching bowtie and patent leather sneaks the next, the former GQ intern is making a subtle statement. We’ll leave the exact deciphering up to Tim Gunn, but we can confidently say that it has something to do with keeping folks on their toes. Remember: It’s a complicated mind game that Rondo plays.

“His leadership separates him from a lot of point guards,” says Phil Pressey, the Celts’ rookie PG. “He dictates the game offensively and defensively. When you see a guy doing that as a point guard, there’s so much that I can add to my game. It’s not just what he does well on the court, but his leadership and how he talks to his teammates.”

When you turn around for follow-up quotes from Rondo, he’s out the picture. He couldn’t have gone to the shower area, could he? Nah, he’s already done that twice. Is he back with the trainer? Nope, the knee is stronger than ever. You walk out of the locker room and finally catch a glimpse of a slender fella in piercing blue khakis. It’s Rondo. His head is high and his strut is confident. He’s making a beeline for the bus. Nothing left to talk about here.