Point Guard Afraid

A Daily Babble Production

The 13 assists and four steals against just two turnovers in his box score line indicate that Rajon Rondo wasn't the Celtics' biggest problem in last night's debacle in Cleveland.  He wasn't.  That the team couldn't stop anyone, that LeBron James is incredible, that Paul Pierce was anything but and that the Celtics couldn't buy a shot from the outside all played large roles in the 98-83 fiasco.  But not lost among those issues or in the midst of those nice numbers should be the fact that the Celtics' point guard was part of the problem rather than the solution last night.

While Rondo had his moments where he pushed the tempo and helped increase the efficacy of the offense (the begining of the third quarter comes to mind), it wasn't just his 1-for-8 shooting performance that truly defined his night but the body language he demonstrated in accumulating that line.  The man looked scared.

Rondo and the Celtics are at their best when the point guard is attacking the rim fearlessly and playing aggressive basketball all the way through every play.  The latter portion of last season's series with the Cavs is the last time I can recall Rondo consistently not doing those sorts of things.  He had several shots blocked around the rim, and especially disturbing was the regularity with which he had the ball knocked away on the fast break, particularly by LeBron James.  By the end of that series, Rondo clearly wanted no part of either LeBron or the Cavs' jungle of bigs on the inside. He had experienced something similar at times against the super-athletic Hawks, but he Cavs' size and shot-blocking ability seemed to take the tentative play to a new level for him.

Over the early portion of this season, that uncertainty disappeared.  Rondo made himself a scoring threat in the lane and didn't seem afraid of having his shot blocked.  Some of that higher confidence level may have declined over the first eight games of this recent slump, particularly when teams started putting bigs on him and forcing him toward the perimeter.  But it was last night that the confidence issues appeared to return to a high not witnessed since the Cavs series a season ago.

Looking back, I should have counted the number of occasions on which Rondo began to attack the rim, elevated toward the basket and then seemed to decide while in the air that he no longer wanted to put the ball up, opting instead to fling it back out to the perimeter, often to an unsuspecting teammate.  It won't show up in the box score or the play-by-play, and I don't have an exact figure for you, but it did happen several times over the course of the game.

In addition to the attack-then-change-mind-in-midair issue, Rondo rushed just about every shot he took around the rim.  The defining image of his shooting from around the hoop for the night was a play on which Ray Allen had his lay-up attempt blocked by James.  Rondo grabbed the ball in the air roughly two feet from the basket and all but tried to put it back in the basket before he had even caught it.  Predictably, the ball bounced off the rim and to a waiting Cavalier.  It was one of many rushed misses around the goal for a guy who couldn't seem to get the ball out of his hands quickly enough anytime he was in the same zip code as the paint all night.

Further, while Raj missed several around the bucket, there were also a few opportunities that he passed up without even making himself a threat to shoot.  As was the case against Charlotte on Tuesday night, Rondo also had a couple of instances in which he caught the ball just outside the block and made no effort to get set in a triple threat position, square up to the basket or attack.  This was not lost on defenders, and it prevented Rondo from being effective when he caught the ball down low.  The Cavs didn't have to leave other Celtics open in order to send help because there was no threat of Rondo getting to the basket for an easy two as he just wasn't looking for it.

Really, it's the first problem about making his decisions in midair that is the most frustrating.  While Rondo had only two turnovers on the night, consistently making a last-second decision to fling the ball back out to the perimeter has plenty of risk of resulting not only in a turnover but a fast break for the other team.  Even when the ball isn't turned over, it doesn't do much good to catch a teammate off guard because that teammate often won't be ready to do something useful with the basketball.  Finally, it's just a bad sign to see the point guard who catalyzed this offense during the team's 19 straight wins look so gun-shy about making himself a scoring threat.

Whether Rajon Rondo's timidness around the rim last night was an issue unique to facing a Cavaliers team that blocks a lot of shots is uncertain. It could have been a result of the frustration of having not played well recently, or it could have simply not been his night as far as shooting the ball was concerned.  Perhaps (and this writer has the omnipresent faith of a fanatic) he will get that confidence back next time out against Toronto.  But for one game, the point guard looked downright scared of getting his shot blocked inside.  And that is one of the last things the Celtics need if they are going to get their offensive swagger back anytime soon.

***

Programming note: Sunday's Celtics-Raps tilt tips in the early afternoon, so the Babble will come at you a few hours later than its normal time.  Likely early evening rather than one o'clock, but it will be present as always.

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