Rajon Rondo has become lost, wandering in the basketball wilderness. Until he finds his way back the Celtics can't find theirs moving forward.
That harsh reality, more than his banged-up pinkie finger, is why I believe coach Doc Rivers sat out his pertinacious point guard last night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. It was a one-game forced vacation. The Celtics can spin it however they want, but Rondo needed a mental health day as much as a physical one.
When these Celtics won their first NBA title in 2008 the question was whether Boston could win it all with Rondo at the point. Now, there is no question they can't win it again without him. The hope is that he returns to the court tonight against Indiana renewed and re-focused and that the team can resume its regularly-scheduled championship pursuit.
Whatever is bothering Rondo -- injuries, the shocking trade of best friend Kendrick Perkins, his shots not falling, a combination of the three -- has metastasized to the point where it is threatening to undermine the Celtics' season. Rondo's funk is a more pressing issue than the always imminent returns of Shaquille O'Neal and Jermaine O'Neal or the absence of Perk.
It's not fair to blame one player for the Celtics' recent struggles, but Rondo is the quarterback, the catalyst for the Green. He has been off his game, shooting 32 percent and averaging 6.4 points and 7.1 assists in his last nine games, and the Celtics have been in a tailspin. Last night's uninspired 85-82 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves pushed their record to 5-6 in their last 11 games.
During those 11 games, the Celtics have shot 43.7 percent from the floor and topped 50 percent just once -- in a comeback win in New Orleans. For the season, the Celtics are still the No. 1 team in field goal percentage in the league, shooting 48.4 percent, but they had hovered around 50 percent for much of the year.
Like hotels and restaurants, NBA point guard is a service industry. For much of this season Rondo was the Four Seasons. Recently, he's been more like a Holiday Inn.
What makes Rondo great is his unbridled defiance, the force of will of his personality and his playing style. Not content to take a backseat to the Big Three, he forced us to redefine them as the Big Four. He doesn't back down from trash-talk with NBA royalty like Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade, and he relishes going in amongst the NBA's redwoods and coming down with rebounds.
But that same force of will can become a negative for teammates and Rivers to deal with when it becomes sustained stubbornness. It was that way Rondo's rookie season and at times last season, and it is right now.
Was there any doubt that when Rivers unleashed his diatribe about his team being selfish following the home loss to the Charlotte Bobcats on Friday that one of the players he was referring to was Rondo?
“Right now, I just think we’ve become very, very selfish," an irritated Rivers said. "Not as far as trying to get our own, but everything is about how we’re playing individually instead of how the team is playing. You can see it. A guy struggles. He pouts. He moans. Everything is 'me, me, me' on our team right now, feeling sorry for themselves instead of giving themselves to the team and playing. You can just see it manifest throughout the team. Until we can get through that we will continue to have results like we had tonight."
The next game the Celtics play after Rivers' rant about self-centered behavior, Rondo is a DNP. That's not a coincidence, whether Rondo aggravated the pinkie against Charlotte that night and again in practice the following day or not.
Anyone who has watched Rondo play since he came into the league knows that he's far too tough to let a pinkie injury be the sole reason he sits out a game. Not to mention that Mavericks forward Shawn Marion is playing with a mangled pinkie finger without issue.
Rivers had to rein him in and remind him exactly whose team this is, especially after Rondo questioned Rivers's playcalling following the team's loss to Memphis last Wednesday, during which Rondo shot just 2 for 12 and made some questionable decisions down the stretch.
Enough was enough.
This is a strange detour for what was shaping up as arguably the best season of Rondo's career. He got off to a sizzling start, setting an NBA record for the most assists through the first five games (82), and he has led the league in assists practically wire-to-wire. He had games of 24, 23 and 19 assists before the All-Star break. The 24- and 23-assist games both came when he posted triple-doubles.
In the past 25 NBA seasons, since 1985-86, there have been six instances where a player recorded a triple-double with 20 or more assists. No player had done it more than once. Rondo did it twice in the same season.
Even with his recent struggles, Rondo is still tied for the NBA lead in triple-doubles with three and with Steve Nash for the league lead in assists per game (11.4).
While Chicago point guard Derrick Rose spurs his team to the top seed in the East and makes his case to be the NBA's Most Valuable Player, Rondo is struggling and his team is sliding down the standings.
The Celtics have 10 games remaining starting with the Pacers tonight. That's plenty of time for Rondo to work out his issues, whatever they may be.
When Rondo returns to forms, so will the Celtics.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.