Last Friday night, Rajon Rondo missed two free throws late in the game, which played a small, yet important role in the loss against the Chicago Bulls. In three games since then, the Boston Celtics' star point guard is shooting a combine 3-for-19, averaging just two points per game.
And he has only been to the free throw line twice; he missed both, dropping his season average to an NBA-worst, 30 percent.
I thought that story had climaxed on Saturday morning -- everyone in the media was writing about his struggles, Brad Stevens was deflecting questions about any possible psychological issues, and Rondo himself claimed it's not a mental issue.
But on Wednesday night versus the Detroit Pistons, Rondo barely touched the ball down the final stretch, which struck me as odd. After Boston almost blew another game late in the fourth quarter, Stevens took the ball out of Rondo's hands and put it into Evan Turner's in overtime.
Start at the 23-second mark of the fourth quarter, Rondo brought the ball up the court only once, and Turner handled the other eight possessions. Rondo's responsibilities essentially started and ended with inbounding the ball on after-timeout plays.
Is it because Rondo was struggling? Not exactly, because he was doing a fine job of getting the team into the offense and creating opportunities for his teammates, with eight assists and three secondary assists on the night. Is it because Turner was excelling? Not that either, as he had his fair share of head-scratching mistakes throughout the game.
I believe it was because Stevens assumed that Detroit would employ a "Hack-a-Rondo" strategy, or that he was simply wary of the increased chance of Rondo being fouled had he been handling the ball.
Someone please ask Brad Stevens if Evan Turner was bringing the ball up the court in OT to avoid intentional fouls on Rajon Rondo.— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) December 4, 2014
After the game, Jay King of MassLive did ask Stevens if Turner was playing point guard because of free throws, but he sort of dodged the question. Not that I blame him, because I would've too -- hell, if I were the coach, the media would probably loathe me, because I come from the school of Bill Belichick.
"Well, Evan's shooting 87 percent or something?" asked Stevens, though that doesn't answer why his four-time All-Star, shot-creating maestro was playing off-ball. "We were Rondo playing off the ball in some of the actions. We had Rondo run a cut to get him on a live dribble on a pick-and-roll to start the overtime and he made a nice pass to Sully on a jam play. It doesn't really matter who has [the ball] to me."
That's nice and all, and I am all for experimenting with playing Rondo off-ball, because I'd actually love to see it more often. I'd also like to see Rondo on the low post more often against small guards, but not for virtually the first time all season in overtime of a must-win game.
The last thing I ever want to do is make a story out of nothing, but this is something -- unlike his breakfast date with Kobe -- because it's unusual for studs like Rondo to not touch the ball in end-of-game situations. After all, Rondo has touched the ball 20.4 percent of the time he's been on the court this season, the 16th-most in the NBA.
As I wrote in my article on About.com, I actually agree with Stevens' decision to take the ball out of Rondo's hands, because he is struggling so much right now, but I am worried about the potential impact going forward. It's not worth delving into too deeply right now, but the situation is worth monitoring.
If Rondo doesn't regress to his career free throw averages, then a night will come when the opponent plays "Hack-a-Rondo" and puts him on the line. And if Rajon Rondo doesn't come through, then there could be even more serious issues for the Boston Celtics in the fourth quarter.