Some days, I like to take a step back from my daily life and reflect on what I'm thankful for. You know, life, love, family, Starburst Jellybeans, the usual. I'm a fairly normal guy. But on days like today, I'm unspeakably thankful for Rajon Rondo.
Like so many other Celtics' fans, I adopted Oklahoma City as my favorite Western Conference team for two reasons: they now have Perk, and with his acquisition, they look like the toughest matchup out West for the Lakers (or at least, the toughest matchup that isn't 6'1 and wearing the name "Paul" on the back of his jersey). So while watching a very tight Game 4 between the Nuggets and Thunder on Monday night, I was rooting for OKC to come back and win. And, given that the Thunder were down by three, that Kevin Durant is one of the toughest three point shooters to guard in the NBA, and that at that point in the game, he was hotter than a high fever in summer from beyond the arc, I automatically assumed that Durant would be the one shooting for the tie.
I was wrong.
Russell Westbrook got the ball off a miss by Denver, pushed the ball up the court, and slowed to a stop just behind the three point line. He continued dribbling, and seemed to survey his other offensive options rather half-heartedly for a second before stepping into a three pointer. Airball.
Upon witnessing this abomination of human endeavour, the Denver crowd seemed momentarily stunned with relief before exploding into cheers. Viewers at home could practically hear Charles Barkley back in the TNT studio foaming at the mouth at Westbrook's decision making. But Westbrook wasn't done. After Felton clanked a free throw that allowed the Thunder one final heave to send the game into overtime, Westbrook again played antihero-ball, dribbling up the court in a mad dash, and heaving a desperate attempt to draw a foul at the basket. Clang. Ball game.
All the while, I was thinking just one thing: Rondo would not have taken those shots.
Now, Westbrook is a fantastic player. He developed into an All Star this year, and his selection to the squad was well deserved. His bull-in-a-china-shop routine consistently gets him to the free throw line, where he knocks down a very respectable 85%. Combine this with his speed, strength, and freakish aggressiveness, and he has made himself one of the most difficult players to guard in the NBA.
But in close games, the teams who win consistently are teams whose players know EXACTLY what their role is, and how best to perform that role. A point guard's job throughout the game, but especially in crunch time, is to find the best shot available, whether that's for themselves, or for a teammate; a role with which young stud point guards often struggle. Another good example is Derrick Rose, who has hoisted a shudder-inducing 29 three pointers in four playoff games so far (three more than the greatest three point shooter of all time, Ray Allen...hey, I'm just the messenger), and has made just 5 of them. Derrick, your shot selection...woof.
But Rondo, despite being one of the most confident young players in the league, doesn't take stupid shots. For whatever reason, they really aren't a part of his repertoire. He knows his limits, he knows his strengths, he knows the pieces he has around him, and plays within these parameters as well as (if not better than) anybody else in the NBA. He doesn't think of himself as a three point threat (thank goodness) or as his team's number one scoring option (unless he's being guarded by Tony Douglas). He knows all of the dangerous options the Celtics have on offense, he knows where they need the ball, and he knows when to get it to them. He knows that if he waits a split second, Ray Allen will be coming off a curl, his defender will have just received a bone-jarring pick from Kevin Garnett, and Allen will likely have an open jumpshot. Not just that, he also knows the spot on Ray's body that makes it easiest for him to catch, elevate, and shoot in that perfect, sweet motion.
But more importantly, at the end of the game, Rondo knows who has the hot hand, and he knows how Doc Rivers' plays are drawn up. Doc's plays out of timeouts almost always have four scoring options and Rondo memorizes them flawlessly. He improvises when necessary, but does so intelligently, which leads to many easy baskets coming out of timeouts for the Celtics.
Obviously, I'm not under the impression that Rondo is a perfect player; he's far from it. But he might be the perfect point guard for this particular team. We all know his flaws, and, honestly, we've all rehashed them so many times that sometimes I'm afraid we forget to appreciate the beautiful, cerebral brand of basketball that he plays when he is at his best, which he seems to save for the playoffs. So after watching several other young point guards struggle with their roles and identities in Round 1, it seems entirely appropriate that we take a moment and remember to appreciate how lucky we are to have Rondo.
Read more of Tom's NBA writing at Gymratrants.blogspot.com.