Debate was raging today over whether or not Rajon Rondo deserved to be suspended
Near the end of Monday night's Celtics-Hawks game in Atlanta, Rondo bumped official Marc Davis after taking issue with a loose-ball foul Davis called on teammate Brandon Bass. The foul knocked Bass out of the game, and a minor scrum ensued before Rondo was escorted off the court.
Maybe Rondo tripped into Davis, his momentum accidentally carrying him into the official. Maybe Rondo stuck out his chest and bumped Davis on purpose. The league office made the determination that Rondo should be suspended for Tuesday's game.
The suspension debate aside, now is the time the Celtics should expect more from their young leader.
More than the details, what makes Rondo's actions concerning is the circumstances. The Celtics were down just four points when Rondo picked up a technical foul for arguing with Davis. Despite their poor play, the Celtics were in a position to win the game. Getting even one technical in that circumstance is a big blow.
It all happened in seconds, but Rondo's lack of restraint in continuing to go after Davis -- earning Rondo a second technical foul and an ejection -- is something the Celtics couldn't afford. By taking himself out of the final 41 seconds of Game 1, Rondo was taking the Celtics' most important player off the floor in a winnable game. By taking himself out of Game 2, Rondo puts his team at a significant disadvantage for the series.
“It affects us a lot," Kevin Garnett said of losing Rondo. “There goes our leader."
Garnett's words get to the heart of the issue. This will be Rondo's team soon. It's probably his team now. And with that responsibility come expectations that he will maintain his composure, especially in big moments.
There's a precedent here. Not so long ago, the Celtics were led by petulant young star named Paul Pierce. A reluctant leader possessed with unquestioned talent, Pierce was the author of several incidents that cost his team. During Game 6 of a 2005 playoff series with Indiana, Pierce was ejected after drawing his second technical foul by shoving Pacers guard Jamaal Tinsley (video below).
Pierce's ejection came with 12.9 seconds left in the fourth quarter with the Celtics clinging to an 84-83 lead. With Pierce out of the game, the Pacers chose Celtics center Kendrick Perkins to shoot two free throws, which he missed to force overtime. The Celtics won the game in OT, but the lasting images from that series are of Pierce taking off his jersey and swinging it over his head while walking off the court, and of Pierce wearing a fake bandage on his head in the post-game press conference.
As recently as 2008, Pierce earned a fourth-quarter technical foul for throwing his headband in the Celtics' first-round series against the Hawks. Pierce was also fined $25,000 by the NBA in that series for flashing what some thought was a gang sign toward the Hawks bench. And that was the postseason where the Celtics won the title.
Pierce has matured greatly since 2005, and his discretions in 2008 were minor bumps in the road in what was otherwise a season in which he displayed great leadership. His increased leadership helped the Celtics defeat LeBron James' Cavaliers and Kobe Bryant's Lakers on the way to a championship.
Following Sunday night's game with the Hawks, Pierce had a been-there-before tone to his voice when discussing Rondo.
"I don't think it was on purpose," Pierce said of Rondo's bump of Davis. "But it's up to the league."
Like a young Pierce, Rondo has a history of acting out. The Celtics point guard was ejected for throwing a ball at referee Sean Wright during a game against the Pistons on Feb. 19. He was suspended for two games. Celtics coach Doc Rivers has publicly called on Rondo to be a better leader over the years, and for the most part the progress has gone as planned. But Rondo's recent bumps in the road bring to mind a Pierce who famously told the Globe's Jackie MacMullan in 2007, "I'm the classic case of a great player on a bad team, and it stinks."
In 2005 Pierce led a team filled with personalities that can be generously described as interesting. Antoine Walker was his co-star. Al Jefferson, Tony Allen, and Delonte West were rookies. Ricky Davis, Marcus Banks, and Mark Blount played significant roles.
The post-Big Three Celtics hopefully won't be a replica of that 2004-2005 version, but Rondo's role on next year's team will be similar to what Pierce's role was then. The Celtics roster may be composed mostly of young players, some of whom don't quite "get it" just yet. Rondo will be the undisputed leader, and the Celtics will live and die by his example.
The torch has been passed. It's time for Rondo to carry it.