“Rondo has a special gift, and you can see it in his court awareness and his ability to make one play after another,’’ said Lenny Wilkens, a three-time inductee in the Hall of Fame as a player, a coach, and an assistant on the gold medal Olympic Dream Team in 1992. “Everybody is starting to see what an outstanding young guard he is.’’
For all his sparkle, though, Rondo remains a flawed jewel. He is prone to mental lapses, as he showed in last season’s playoffs with an inexplicable backcourt violation and an array of unforced turnovers. He can be emotionally reckless, as he reminded his teammates last season by bumping one official, flipping a ball into another’s stomach, trying to kick Miami’s Shane Battier, and later shoving Battier after the whistle, among other acts of petulance. Nor does he shy from engaging in a little bulletin-board, playground trash-talk, as he did during the Miami series when he ridiculed the Heat during a nationally televised halftime interview for “crying to the referees.’’
By turns headstrong and aloof, surly and distracted, Rondo at times has caused his employers to consider trading him, as they reportedly did last season when they eyed the more polished All-Star point guard Chris Paul. For reasons not all his own, Rondo also failed as the team’s new leader to salvage a productive relationship with shooting star Ray Allen. A bitter Allen bolted in free agency to the Heat over the summer, leaving Rondo to supplant him in the Big Three.
That worked for Danny Ainge, the Celtics’ president of basketball operations, who has left no doubt that he considers Rondo the team’s “best player.’’
Rondo, in fact, flashed such brilliance in the playoffs that he not only proved to be the best Celtics player at times, but often outshined the reigning league MVP, LeBron James, and his celebrated running mate, Wade. By all accounts, Rondo seethes to conquer the league’s best.
“Rondo has that ego and macho in him that says, ‘I’m going to take on the tough guys,’ ’’ Archibald said. “He is not giving up squat. He will kill a mosquito with a sledgehammer because of the meanness he has in him, and I like that.”
So do teammates. They also like the artist in him, his ability to create a scoring opportunity — like Cousy and the other all-time greats — by anticipating angles and movements earlier than anyone else in the arena. A pinpoint entry pass from the wing, a finely threaded bounce pass from the top of the key, a perfect lob: Rondo can find his targets, confound his defenders, and put teammates in position to easily do the rest.
“He has that magnificent knack of seeing things two or three plays ahead,’’ said Cassell, an assistant coach for the Washington Wizards. “It doesn’t mean making a spectacular play. It means making the right play.’’
If necessary, Rondo scores himself, often by penetrating the lane with his extraordinary quickness. Time and again, he has frozen opponents for easy layups with one of his signature drives, the most consistently effective one distinguished by his cupping the ball in his oversized right hand and faking a pass behind his back.
He does it all with a sense of authority that Cousy finds familiar.
“I can’t remember when I reached the level when I no longer was concerned that everything I tried, no matter how creative it was, was going to work,’’ Cousy said. “But when you’re a skilled athlete and you begin playing with supreme confidence, you’re going to be even more effective. It makes such a difference with a point guard. That’s what you’re seeing with Rondo. He is throwing the ball away less frequently and has a far greater chance of his creative moves working than he did a couple of years ago because of his confidence level.’’
By Rondo’s own admission, his performance has improved since he went from thinking about “me’’ as a rookie to “we’’ as a team leader. Since he helped the previous Big Three win a ring in 2008, he has been a three-time All-Star. In 2009-10, he set the franchise records for assists (794) and steals (189) in a season, and last year he led the league in the regular season with a franchise-record 11.7 assists per game as well as six triple-doubles.
He was the first Celtic to lead the league in assists since Cousy in 1959-60. And he easily could have improved his scoring average (11.9 points a game) if he committed to it. Even when he scored 44 points against the Heat in a virtuoso performance in the conference finals, he passed up a number of open shots.
“He should have had 54 that night,’’ Cassell said. “I’ve told him he doesn’t shoot enough, but that’s just him. He has a unique style of play.’’Continued...