Rajon Rondo's assist totals this season have been staggering. He's currently leading the NBA in assists with 16.4 per game, and he just set a new NBA record for most assists (82) through the first five games of the season, passing both John Stockton and Magic Johnson. This record comes directly on the heels of him setting the NBA record for most assists through the first four games of a season (67) on Tuesday night against Detroit (again surpassing Stockton and Johnson). His assist numbers have been so impressive that his nine-assist performance in the Celtics' lone loss of the season to the Cleveland Cavaliers (nine assists is actually a pretty impressive number in its own right. Rondo averaged 9.8 assists per game last season and we were thrilled with that) actually looks like an unsightly blemish on an otherwise immaculate resume.
Every so often, an NBA player will begin to dominate a specific statistical category, and when the performances start to become consistent, we begin to form expectations, to the point where we'll purposely seek out that player's individual stat line just because we want to be amazed. We'll start to say things like, "Wow, he actually did it again...". There's still the largest and most important event, which is the game itself. If we have to miss the game, the first thing we'll text our friend is, "Did the team win?" Winning and losing still comes first. The team still comes first. But then our focus immediately shifts to the player who's been dominating a statistical category. So, after our friend texts us back saying the team won, the next question we immediately ask is, "How many points/rebounds/assists did Player X have?"
We're starting to reach that level with Rondo. His passing performances are steadily becoming events all to themselves. Sure, the Celtics have only played five games this season, but that's where the consistency comes into play. Rondo hasn't handed out 15+ assists just one time. He's done it in four of the five games. He dishes out 17 assists in the opener against Miami, which we deem phenomenal, then comes back down to earth slightly with only nine the next night against Cleveland. But then he skyrockets back up and steals all of the headlines with a career-high 24 assists against the Knicks. So, of course that outstanding number gets embedded in our minds, and on the day of the next game we casually remind ourselves that he's coming off of a 24-assist performance, and then we casually wonder what he'll finish with that night, not really expecting (although we're secretly hoping) that his assist total will mirror what he posted against New York. Then he goes out and records 17 assists again. So now we begin to wonder: "Maybe this is what Rondo's going to do this season. Maybe this is what we should expect."
Flash forward to last night's game against the Milwaukee Bucks. There was unquestionably a sense of anticipation surrounding Rondo because of the assist numbers. How would he fare against a solid point guard like Brandon Jennings? Would that disrupt him at all? Three quarters of the way through the first frame, Rondo had just one assist. Mike Gorman even mentioned very casually on the broadcast something to the tune of: "Only one assist for Rondo so far tonight." He said it very objectively, but he said it because the one assist was defying our expectations. The Assist Watch was definitely on and at halftime (four assists) and heading into the fourth quarter (eight assists), it was looking like it wouldn't be another spectacular evening. But then Rondo lit up the fourth quarter by assisting on six of Boston's final seven baskets in regulation, and capped it off with the record-breaking assist in overtime, finishing with 15 on the night.
As fans, we love this stuff. We respond to and relish impressive performances. 50-point games amaze us. 20-rebound games grab our attention (even when they're credited to Mark Blount). 24-assist nights keep us talking. But typically, such performances are rare, and have been with this core of Celtic players, since the wealth of talent doesn't call for one player to routinely post heroic numbers.
We've seen very balanced teams the last three seasons, but Rondo's now beginning to break out in a big way. Last season he flirted with 10 assists per game, and his 12-assist nights and 13-assist nights were so impressive because we were seeing him grow as a point guard and because we couldn't recall the last time the Celtics had a point guard capable of posting those types of numbers. Think back to how thrilled we were last season with Rondo's assist numbers. And so far this season, he's crushing those, and it's captivating us.
For those interested, the all-time single season assist per game mark is held by Stockton, who dished out a whopping 14.5 assists per game during the 1989-1990 season. A player hasn't averaged at least 12 assists per game since Stockton averaged 12.3 during the 1994-1995 campaign. We're still a long way from talking about Rondo realistically challenging either of these marks, but a start like the one he's had sure can't hurt his chances.
And even though it's only been five games, Rondo's performances have been so dominating, and so consistent, that, if we do miss a game, the first question we'll text our friend will be: "Did the Celtics win?" And when our friend tells us that they won, we'll immediately inquire about the next most pressing matter: "How many assists did Rondo have?"