Posted Dec 16 2009 11:11AM
With 3.9 seconds left on the clock, third quarter, Boston at Chicago the other night, you could tell it was coming: My pet-peeve play.
Not that anyone on either side consulted me, but when the Celtics inbounded the ball, point guard Rajon Rondo let it roll, let it roll, let it roll. He didn't push the ball up the floor, he escorted it, never touching his pebble-grain pal even as Chicago's Kirk Hinrich met him on the Bulls' side of midcourt. Then, in a flash, Rondo bent down, snatched the ball, dribbled to Hinrich's side and canned a 20-footer with 0.4 left. The Celtics went from up 18 to up 20 with 12 minutes left. G'night everybody.
That move -- letting the ball go untouched to allegedly preserve a second or two of game time -- strikes me as no more efficient than sliding into first base. False hustle or, in this case, false savvy. By the time you snatch up the ball and relocate the rim and your teammates, all the while putting the possession at risk, do you really save any time?
It seemed like a rah-rah college move. Until Rondo persuaded me otherwise.
"I know in my peripheral [vision] if someone's coming," he said after the 106-80 victory, "My arms are pretty long. If it's all the way down [on the floor], I can pretty much pick it up with one hand. It's just something I've always done since I came into the league. I felt it was a smart decision -- it makes sense to me to not touch the ball until you have to. I think I can get up the court in three seconds, but it probably would have been a 3-point shot instead of a two."
Boston coach Doc Rivers gave his blessing as well. "What Rondo's actually trying to do is get the guard to make a play on the ball, so that his balance is coming toward him and [Rondo] can attack," Rivers said. "Only a couple of guys have actually fallen for it."
What matters more, of course, is the number of point guards and their teams who have fallen prey to Rondo and his Celtics. While the team's Big Three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen have gotten, and will continue to get, most of the attention, Rondo has asserted himself into opponents' game-planning more than ever. If the Celtics aren't thought of yet as the Big Four, they at least know that Rondo is right there, next in line. He's way more Ringo Starr than Billy Preston.
"Me? That's really kind of irrelevant right now," Rondo said. "It is what it is. I'm happy with my situation. They can get all the accolades and awards. I just want a ring. Bottom line. That's going to make my summer go a lot easier."
Making this season go easier was the $55 million contract extension the team negotiated with him at the deadline this fall. The incongruity of such a valuable piece in what Boston hopes is an 18th NBA championship puzzle playing toward free agency, the ball in his hands but distractions in his head, seemed to click for all involved. The deal got done, Rondo is in the long-term blueprint and Boston is 20-4, on an 11-game win streak and Larry O'Brien dreaming again.
"I don't know, I thought he was good before the deal," Rivers said. "I thought he came into camp with an amazing attitude, an amazing approach to the game. He's become a leader on our team. That's the step he's taken this year. Last year he was a player; this year he's a leader. Our guys now want to follow him -- that's huge."
Said Rondo of his secure status: "I'm sleeping better, I will say that. I wasn't stressed at the time my deal was trying to get done. I was fine with playing it out. I'm very comfortable with how I play. I'm very confident in what I do out there, so it wasn't an issue. But definitely, getting it done takes a lot off your shoulders, whether you think it's affecting you or not."
No quibbles with the results now: Rondo is averaging 12 points, 4.1 rebounds and 9.5 assists, with an efficiency rating over 20 and a field-goal percentage of 53.5. He always has been a terrific finisher, which boosts anyone's "make" rate, but his jump shot is more reliable now too, the product of thousands of summertime attempts.
Against the Bulls over the weekend, Rondo had 16 points, 14 assists, seven boards, three steals, five turnovers and one block. At Milwaukee last week, it was 11 points, nine rebounds, 13 assists and five steals. It's enough to make you wonder how much Rondo could handle, how bright his star might shine, if he were the best and best-known player on his team a la Derrick Rose or Chris Paul. Then again, if Rondo's development didn't need fast-tracking because of all the help in Boston, it didn't get derailed either.
"With the veterans that we have here, it gives him a cushion," Garnett said. "He doesn't necessarily have a lot of responsibility to score. But he has a big responsibility in keeping everything intact. He'll get on your behind when you're not doing something. In the huddle, he'll say something and if he feels like you're not listening to him, he'll grab you. He's aggressive, and his aggressiveness fits this team. He has all the confidence in the world to talk to us with some sense, where he's not just talking."
Garnett, the key to Boston's defensive demeanor, gives heavy credit to Rondo's work against dribble penetration. There's better focus, more discipline, confidence catching up to cockiness, even a smarter diet. "He's embraced the whole notion of getting better," the power forward said. "He's on the weights, he's taking care of his body. A couple years ago, he'd come in, he might be eating a cheeseburger, some fries, a bunch of mayonnaise, eating like a 21-year-old. Now I can definitely say he's taking care of his body -- not so much mayo and cheese. It's more of a chicken sandwich now.
"All jokes aside, he's working. He hears the critics, the hollers about his game, and he chases that. That fuels him."
The hollers are turning more and more into raves, and the Celtics are better off for it. Now and later.
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years.
You can e-mail him here. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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