Posted May 30 2010 12:13PM
BOSTON -- Might as well admit the obvious. The Celtics are going back to the NBA Finals much older than before. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, they all grew another wrinkle. And don't forget Rajon Rondo.
Yes. Age is always a touchy subject around this team, except when it comes to one player. Then, age is welcome. Refreshing, even. Bring up age all you want when you discuss the Celtics and their main area of concern, fair enough, as long as you examine how age has also helped the team. Specifically, Rondo. He's wiser, grown up, more mature than in 2008, when the Celtics won a championship with half the point guard they have now.
"It's been a gradual process," said Celtics boss Danny Ainge. "A wonderful process."
The Celtics are back in the championship round because Rondo is a star. He is the difference. They don't get past the Cavaliers without Rondo (his Game 4 stat line 29-18-13 is classic). No, sir. As slippage has been apparent with KG (somewhat significantly some nights), Allen (a fair amount) and Pierce (only a smidge), Rondo has made up for any loss. And then some. As much as this has been a breakout regular season for him, when he made the All-Star team, the true breakout came during the run through the Eastern Conference playoffs, where he averaged 16.7 points, 10 assists and made big plays.
Let's see. Counting the first round through the conference finals, we've seen the Celtics against Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Dwight Howard. You know what? For a good portion of those games, the best player on the floor, all things considered, was Rondo.
What we didn't see from Rondo in 2008, we're seeing now. First and foremost, the previous Big Three all respect him. They consider him to be on their level, and that wasn't the case two years ago. Then, his job was to give up the ball and, for goodness sake, don't do anything to screw up a good thing. In sports peak, that means "manage the game and stay within your (limited) skills."
Rondo has expanded his game while hiding his flaws quite well. He picks his spots to take shots beyond 10 feet. He has mixed in a dependable running floater. Rondo is the rare player capable of scoring 20-plus points without taking a jumper. He delivers the ball crisply and surely, has cut down on his mental mistakes while playing with boundless energy. Those floor burns he absorbed on that hustle play against Jason Williams will still be visible when Rondo hits the beach later this summer.
The big change with Rondo? He's no longer a legend in his own mind. Sounds crazy, but Rondo actually thought he was a star before he officially became one, according to people within the organization. It led to some friction with the Big Three and the higher-ups, who grew weary of Rondo's act. They paid their dues, he hadn't.
There were times when the dominant voices on the club (Doc Rivers, KG, etc.) would say one thing and Rondo would do another, not to be defiant, but because he thought his way was better. And that often became an issue. Rondo was never close to being traded last summer, contrary to the word making the rounds. Ainge said Rondo had too much support on the inside, and anyway, whatever flaws he had were manageable.
"Leadership is established by what you do on the court," Ainge said. "It's not what you say. It's how you go about your job. Rondo's had to learn that. He's always been bright and looked at himself as one of the veterans. He's had to learn how to be a listener. Ray, Paul and KG and the coaches were always talking to Rondo. There came a time when he was frustrated because he wanted to be heard."
Ainge added: "Look, we've always loved Rajon. He just needed to work on his leadership and practice habits. He had to earn the respect of his teammates and he did as the season went on. We've always known he was a special player."
The course he has taken is not totally different from a young Tony Parker, who eventually won over Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich and led the Spurs to multiple titles. Once the All-Star appearance and the contract extension was in the bag, Rondo seemed more at peace, and was the Celtics' saving grace and most consistent player through a season made bumpy from KG's knee injury.
Throughout his rise on the floor, Rondo has remained quite modest and complimentary to Rivers and teammates, another sign of maturity.
"I've just listened to what those guys had to say, and they've made me a better player," Rondo said. "Doc has been hard on me at times but he knows what he's talking about."
Now back in the NBA Finals for the second time in three years, and still smarting from missing out last season due partly to KG's knee, the Celtics feel Rondo is their bonus. Working against Derek Fisher, Rondo will be the youngest starting point guard, by far, on the floor in the series. But in some ways, two years later against these Lakers, he's much, much older.
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