Throughout the nine-plus months that have passed since Rajon Rondo first made his return in January from ACL surgery, there's been a constant cloud of doubt hanging over his status, as everyone tries to ascertain exactly how "back" he is. We watch for subtle clues about his health or lack thereof, and we get intel straight from Rondo himself about how he's "73" or "79" or "83" percent back to being the old Rondo. (Of note: With this guy, it's always a prime number. He's weird like that.)
Even when the numbers are there, the doubt often persists. The Celtics' All-Star point guard put up 9.8 assists per game last season from January on, which would have put him second in the NBA behind Chris Paul had he qualified, and yet skeptics still maintained that Rondo didn't look like himself - that his play was a step slow or his timing, a smidge off. The ongoing narrative last spring was that, though Rondo's knee was mostly healed, he still needed some time to get in sync with his teammates.
That was baloney then, and it's baloney now. If you watched last night's season opener against the Nets, you know what I mean.
Rondo was a pleasant surprise for the Celtics' opener, making a triumphant return in five weeks from a hand injury that was supposed to take him six to eight. Despite not having the benefit of a full training camp or any live preseason action, the C's captain took the floor last night against the Nets and showed he could be plenty productive even after an injury. His 13 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds spoke for themselves.
What was particularly interesting about Rondo's game was that he showed an instant willingness to sync up with his teammates, even new guys he hadn't gotten the privilege of playing with before last night. Let's take, for example, his instant compatibility with Tyler Zeller. Rondo recorded his sixth and seventh assists of the game early in the second quarter, both on pick-and-rolls with the C's new backup center.
Check out the tape:
In this first clip, you see Zeller set a nice pick on Kevin Garnett, leading KG and Jarrett Jack to switch, and KG picks up his old buddy Rondo at the top of the key. Rondo hesitates for a brief moment and dribbles, seemingly aimlessly, to the point where KG and Jack think they've got him contained. They begin to switch back to their original positions, which is right when Rondo pounces on a beautiful passing lane, firing the perfect bounce pass to thread the needle between KG and Alan Anderson. Zeller finishes easily.
Then, just seconds later:
Again, the C's stick with the Rondo-Zeller pick-and-roll, this time with Zeller disrupting Anderson at the top of the key as KG follows. Both Nets defenders trap Rondo up top this time, and it appears to work, as Zeller heads into the paint and Rondo is cornered a good 10 feet away. But the ever-slippery Rondo wriggles free, probes his way into the paint, motions as if to shoot, and then drops the perfect pass to Zeller at the rim. Again, an easy two points.
Both of these plays were beautiful, and they both demonstrate Rondo's unique combination of skills. He uses his quickness (watch in that second clip as he darts around KG like it's nothing!) and intelligence to make seemingly impossible plays look imminently plausible. And it's all the more impressive when he does this with a guy like Zeller, who just arrived in Boston a few months ago and has never played meaningful minutes with Rondo before. Rondo's proving what some of us already knew - that he doesn't need Hall of Fame teammates, and he doesn't need guys he's been familiar with for years. When you've got the game figured out like Rondo does, you can plug him into any situation with any teammates, and he can make it work.
None of this is to overreact to one game and tell you to book your tickets for Game 1 of the Finals. There's not too much in the way of long-term expectations you can glean from one blowout win over a bad Brooklyn team. But we have seen enough already to know that Rondo is Rondo. No matter what injuries he's got in his recent past, he's playing with all the physical and mental tools that make him great.
There's been a lot of talk lately about how Rondo might not fit in the Celtics' long-term plans - how it might be better to cut him loose now rather than put him through a long rebuilding process. But if he keeps playing like he did last night, ask yourself - why wouldn't you build around Rondo? Who doesn't want a player who's mentally and physically sharp and can mesh with all different types of teammates, whether it's Garnett and Paul Pierce or Zeller and Kelly Olynyk? While the doubters say Rondo isn't the right guy to retool with, you occasionally get a game like this that practically screams to the contrary.
12 assists were a revelation for the Celtics last night. There may still be many, many more to come.