Preface: It feels like I should probably have my user name changed to SteveWfromLI before I pen this column. Because if I'm going to likely be committing a full-scale larceny of some of the long-harbored sentiments of reader MikeDfromNP (CelticsBlog's resident Rondologist), I might as well give the man some tribute. So while the author name says "Steve Weinman" as always, please know that the sentiment is there.
There are a few silver linings to be taken from Kevin Garnett sitting out due to injury this week.
That Doc Rivers has the coaching cajones and the long-term perspective to sit KG to prevent further injury when the stakes are low says much about his ability to maintain control over his team. That the rest of this squad is pushed into engaging in the exercise of playing without the team's centerpiece to lean on is always a good experience. That Garnett is doing the right thing and taking the time to recover now rather than being a warrior in January and at risk come spring time is all well and good.
And then there is that realization that should have occurred much earlier this season -- because it stands regardless of who else is on the court with him -- but took until this week to really hit home: I have officially gotten sucked in for good by Rajon Rondo.
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As I drove to a local bar to catch last night's game on NBA TV, I had a thought that had never distinctly occurred to me over the past season and a half, though it had begun to seep in from time to time earlier this season: I'm going to watch Rondo play tonight.
Sure, KG was sidelined, but this team was still expected to have Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, whose status had not yet been announced with certainty. Further, as someone who tends to be a huge Eddie House booster, this was a particularly odd thought to have, as keeping Eddie's minutes up tends to be a value of mine, despite the fact that I'm wholly aware of his deficiencies and Rondo's edges at the position.
But for whatever reason, the sentiment was there last night with more strength than ever before. I'm going to get to watch Rondo play.
Perhaps it had to do with his excellent game on both ends of the floor against point guard-strapped Orlando in KG's absence on Sunday. Maybe I was just feeling quirky.
Or maybe it was finally hitting me for the first time: Rajon Rondo isn't a serviceable point guard for this team. He is the point guard. For now, and for the future. Yes, the team needs some back-up help for him, but that help is definitively going to be relegated to back-up duties barring injury to Rondo. At the outset of this season, it wasn't.
Sure, it's particularly easy to laud Rondo after successive games in which he had six steals and played well offensively in one followed by 23 points on 8-for-10 shooting in the other. But this isn't about two games, and it isn't even really about those numbers.
It is about what the kid from Kentucky shows every time he steps out onto the floor with that upside-down headband of his, and what he has been showing in different dosage sizes all season.
That he can absolutely fly. In most games Rajon Rondo plays, his quickness is going to be unmatched by his opponent. He truly can blow past almost anyone he wants, at just about anytime. Watching him get up and down the floor is a joy.
That he is an excellent rebounding point guard. Rondo's 4.0 rebounds per game tie him for third among point guards, and he is tied for third in rebounds per 40 minutes as well. He often starts his own breaks by hustling back defensively to pull down a board and then speeding up the floor at that frenetic pace of his.
That, as MikeDfromNP used to write all the time last season on message boards -- although I can't help but admit that on nights when I didn't see the game, I didn't always believe him -- Rondo's low assist totals belie what a good passer he is. On a team that runs its offense primarily through three players, none of which is him, it is natural that his assist totals won't be all that high. But he does an excellent job of finding seams, avoiding turnovers and often throwing that crucial pass before that leads to an assist.
That, while his defense isn't flawless, it is certainly well above-average. The man is in his second year, and yes, he has been schooled on certain occasions by the top-tier point guards in this league, none of whom stand accused of being inferior players to Rondo. But he also has uncanny instincts on the defensive end, which combined with his long wingspan and gigantic fingers makes him very dangerous when he wants to be.
Finally, that his entire offensive game appears to have gotten a world better. All season, Rondo has impressed with his increased confidence around the rim and his ability to score from a variety of angles in the paint. As of late, it only seems that he is getting in the lane with more ease and that he is more willing to absorb contact and adjust himself en route to the basket in order to put the ball in the hole. His moves around the rim have gotten much prettier, as he can scoop and bank the ball from virtually anywhere in the vicinity of the rim, and his ability to make effective up-and-under moves and to switch hands with the ball in the air is to be marveled at. Sure, Rondo still needs to do some work on his jump shooting, but that has improved that to some degree this season, and overall, his offensive game really does look like its on a different planet from what it was last year.
It is a thought that has been creeping in all season, and it is one that could be coming to the forefront now before Celts games: I'm going to watch Rondo play. He is a blur of energy and excitement at both ends of the floor, and he represents that mix of this new era Celts team as well as the youth of the sad but often lovable group with whom we struggled through last season. Without question, he has benefited from the changes around him, but Rajon Rondo has put the work in, and in his own way, he has become a difference-maker on this Celts team. He is finally beginning to make it clear that he is not, and more importantly, will not (in the long run) be relegated to "one of the other guys" status. By no means is he one of the stars as of now, but he is Rajon Rondo, starting point guard for the Boston Celtics. And he will continue to be, hopefully for a long time to come.
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Now, the time has come for him to be treated as such.
If there has been any particular positive to watching the offense without both Garnett and Allen -- and with Pierce's minimal production in the second half on Sunday and throughout last night's game -- it has been watching the way this team's offense functions when it is run by its point guard.
Not 'run' as in the ceremonial 'run,' the 'Get the ball across the timeline, and immediately give it to Paul or Ray, do not pass go, do not collect $200' version of running the offense that Rajon Rondo is often asked to participate in. No, over these last couple of games in particular, Rondo has had full rein of the offense, and he has done a job that is well beyond commendable. He has gotten into the paint with ease (with the disclaimer of course that of the games this week in particular, he was playing against subpar opponents at his position), and he has been effective at getting to the rim, jump-stopping and maneuvering in the paint, and making smart passes to get his teammates open looks. He has been that creative playmaker that many of us spent last season dreaming that he could be.
Those plays he has been making? As of late, they have been for the likes of James Posey, Leon Powe, Kendrick Perkins and Tony Allen. To their credit, those guys have been fairly effective at making the most of their opportunities. But if Rondo can run this offense and garner looks for both himself and his teammates with that cast on the floor, what happens when he has carte blanche to do his thing with the three studs on the floor is anybody's guess. Yes, this offense can and has worked to at least a fairly decent degree with the ball often in the hands of Pierce, Allen or occasionally Garnett right from the start of most possessions in the halfcourt. But that doesn't mean there isn't a lot of room or improvement. With Rondo doing more of the ball-handling and running of the offense, the Celts as a team could be putting more effort into getting Pierce and Allen into spots for good looks at the basket rather than having one of them handle the ball, which can inadvertently lead to isolations and having the offense stagnate more often than one would like.
Rajon Rondo shouldn't be the guy who only gets looks when opposing defenses slough off him to put pressure on one of the big-deal honchos while one of said honchos has the basketball. He should be the guy creating better looks for both them and himself. He has always had the physical ability to wreak havoc in the paint and thread nice passes. Now, he finally has gained the efficacy in his game around the rim and the confidence in his offensive skills to be that player once and for all. Rajon Rondo can run this Boston Celtics offense. He can push the ball on the break like nobody's business, and he can find the seams in the half-court. Or he can create them with his quickness.
Paul, Ray and KG don't need to each have the onus on them of being primary ball-handlers and decision-makers in addition to scorers. The theory at the outset of the season was that this team would be far better off with the stars playing that way because there was a fair bit of uncertainty about the point guard's competence.
That isn't the case anymore.
This isn't to say that Rondo is now The Man or that a few good weeks validate him as a star of any sort. He still has plenty of a ways to go. But he has grown as a player throughout the season, and in the absence of some of the big names on this team of late, he has shown that he is most certainly a very legitimate point guard in this league, and he has demonstrated that there is reason to believe that he can be far more than that in the long term. It is time to free Rajon Rondo, to let his penetration abilities drive the offense, to run screen-and-rolls that force teams to make quick decisions regarding how to cover him around the screens, which will undoubtedly lead to quite a share of open Rondo drives or easy passes for lay-ups.
This is the point guard of the Boston Celtics. Not "shepherd of the offense." Point guard. He is a joy to watch, and he's for real.
Hey, I can't help being excited. Come Thursday, courtesy of TNT, I'm going to watch Rondo play.