Remember a few years ago when the Celtics' offense consisted primarily of some sort of isolation play for Paul Pierce? While those were some of the darker days of the decade in terms of wins and losses, one of the only things that kept us coming back night in and night out was the idea of Pierce possibly going off for 40 during any given game. I'm sure you were all like me in the sense that when Pierce would eclipse the 15 or 16-point mark by halftime or the 20-point mark by the end of the third quarter, you would automatically remember his point total throughout the rest of the game.
If Pierce had 20 entering the final period and hit a jump shot to start off the fourth frame, you'd think to yourself, "That's 22!" Two minutes later when he buried a three you would say in your head (or maybe out loud like me), "25!" And that trend would continue on for the rest of the game, no matter the outcome.
The notion of a players' personal stats resonating strongly with us isn't exactly anything new, but over the last decade, we as Celtic fans have been used to that captivating stat being either points or rebounds. When Pierce or Antoine Walker got hot early on, their point totals were automatically embedded in our minds. The same can also be said for Kendrick Perkins, Al Jefferson and even (gulp) Mark Blount when they put together a colossal rebounding night (or in Blount's case, that ONE colossal rebounding night). I think in a way, with the majority of this decade's teams not achieving a whole bunch, stats were an outlet for us. If the Celtics lost but Pierce scored 40 or Perk grabbed 20 boards, we could at least brag about that.
But now, ever since Rajon Rondo helped guide the Celtics to the championship two seasons ago, we've been able to add assists to the list of personal statistics that captivate us night in and night out.
I first noticed myself acknowledging Rondo's assists last season. His 8.2 assists per game mark was a steady sign that he was becoming one of the league's best distributors, especially considering he had averaged a more pedestrian 5.1 assists during the championship season. That increase in assists made him a legitimate threat to reach double figures in dimes every game and it soon became apparent that his assists were much more valuable to the Celtics than his points.
On any given night this season and last season whenever Rondo would find a wide open teammate I wouldn't be thinking about the receiver of the pass scoring the ball. If Ray Allen was lining up for a three-pointer off of a Rondo feed, I wouldn't be thinking, "Ray for three!" Rather, I'd be thinking. "Assist!" Even before the receiver shot the ball, I'd proclaim, "Assist!" because I knew there was a chance for one. It wasn't about the scoring. It was about the passing. It wasn't about the points. It was all about the assists.
So why the steady love for Rondo's passing game? Why have his assists moved up the ranks onto the level of the stats that captivate us? In my mind there are three main reasons:
1) No one else has done it this entire decade: Seriously, Rondo's 8.2 assists per game last year as well as his 9.5 mark this year shatter every other point guard's assist per game mark that played for the Celtics this decade. The closest a player has come to Rondo's mark was Gary Payton back in 2004-2005 when he dished out 6.1 assists per game. Before Payton there was Chucky Atkins in 2003-2004 (5.3 assists per game) and Kenny Anderson during the 2001-2002 campaign (5.3 assists). Before Rondo we never really had any reason to get excited about assists because they were pretty tough to come by. Other names that didn't quite cut it at the point guard spot for the Celtics this decade: Marcus Banks, J.R. Bremer, Orien Greene, Mike James, Dan Dickau, Shammond Williams and Sebastian Telfair.
I apologize for bringing up so many painful memories. If you need a moment I understand...
...Okay, let's continue.
2) Rondo could lead the league in assists: Once Rondo's assists numbers hovered around the eight or nine per game mark, he automatically entered the discussion for the top spot in the league. That fact certainly got our attention. It wasn't long before we were longing for Rondo to rack up the assist numbers, just so he would remain in contention with guys like Chris Paul, Steve Nash and Derron Williams. In a way it sort of became a personal competition. We loved our guy and wanted him to receive the recognition that would automatically come his way by leading the league in assists. So, whenever Rondo neared double digits in dimes with a hefty amount of time to play, the mental calculator switched on and I'd be yelling "Assist!" every time I got a whiff of one. Why? Because an 8+ assist game kept him in the conversation for tops in the NBA.
Last season Rondo finished sixth in the NBA in assists per game with his 8.2 average and this season he's currently sitting fourth in the league with 9.5 per game.
3) Rondo's passes are just so cool: Sure, every once in a while one of Rondo's assists will be a simple pass to Ray Allen curling off of a screen. But the majority of Rondo's dimes are highlight worthy. So often, he can be found knifing through the defense in the lane, only to launch himself into the air, wrap his left hand around the frame of a seven-foot tall center, and dish the ball to a cutting Kendrick Perkins for an easy lay up. Or there are the crisp, practically un-stealable (did I make that word up?) bounce passes that shoot through a string of bodies in the paint and magically find a guy like Perk or Kevin Garnett or Glen Davis in perfect position.
Or, there are the behind-the-back passes, the over-the-head passes, the no-look passes, the full court chest and bounce passes and the near perfect alley-oop tosses to Garnett and Perkins. How about last night against Philadelphia, when Rondo intercepted a Philly pass off balance with 4:45 left in the second quarter, was about to fall on his face, but still managed to shoot the ball sideways over his head, like Tommy Heinsohn shooting a hook shot, to Tony Allen who was sprinting up the court ahead of the defense? The pass found TA perfectly. TA didn't have to slow down, speed up or float right or left to chase after it. It came right to him and I'm 97 percent sure Rondo was looking straight down at the floor he was about to collide with when he threw the ball ahead to Tony.
One last thought: Rondo might very well be the best right-handed, left-handed passer in the league today.
I know Rondo's passes will continue to captivate me as the season rolls along and as he continues to develop as an overall player. Very few players can control a game with assists the way Rondo can. Sometimes scoring in the NBA garners too much of a spotlight. It's truly impressive when a player can dictate a game without actually putting the ball in the bucket. And if you weren't shouting "Assist!" to yourself (or out loud) when Rondo passed before you read this article, I'm tempted to say you'll develop the habit now that you have.