If the Celtics won ugly in Game 3 of their first-round playoff series with the Atlanta Hawks, then Rajon Rondo's triple-double was also more attractive on the stat sheet than on the parquet.
In his return to the series after an unbecoming ejection in Game 1 and resulting one-game suspension, Rondo had 17 points, 14 rebounds and 12 assists on Friday night. But he also shot 7 of 22 from the floor, missed makeable layups down the stretch, air-balled a floater late in the fourth quarter, and had six turnovers.
An acquaintance I watched Game 3 with dubbed it the least impressive triple-double he had ever seen. That's hoops hyperbole, and you know a guy is a great player when you're nitpicking his triple-doubles. But the point is that Rondo's 20th career triple-double was a labor of love and not a work of art.
Sunday night against the Hawks was another story, however. In a contest that wasn't much of one -- the Celtics led by as many as 37 points -- Rondo submitted a performance that in sheer numbers didn't equal what he accomplished on Friday night. But for basketball aesthetics it was superior, like comparing the Sistine Chapel to a paint-by-numbers piece.
Rondo sparked the Celtics to a 101-79 victory over Atlanta and a 3-1 series lead by playing what is known in Brazilian soccer as jogo bonito, or the beautiful game.
The Celtics' restive point guard turned the TD Garden floor into his personal canvas, painting a masterpiece with each pass or stroke of his jump shot. Yes, I said jumper. Rondo had 20 points, 16 assists, three rebounds and remarkably just one turnover. It was more impressive than the triple-double.
"Yeah, because it was needed more," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who could have set up a triage on his bench with all the injuries the Celtics were dealing with -- Mickael's Pietrus's hamstring, Avery Bradley's shoulder, Ray Allen's ankle, and the latest malady, Paul Pierce's left knee.
Basketball isn't all about cold, hard stats. It can be as much performance art as it is athletic endeavor. But if you crave statistical evidence for why this was a better game for Rondo let's start with his 20 points.
Of Rondo's eight made field goals in the game, six of them came on jump shots, none closer than 18 feet. He had two lay-ups, the second of which was a dazzling display of legerdemain. Late in the third quarter, Rondo drove the lane, faked a wrap-around behind the back pass and then pulled the ball back and dropped it in as the Hawks parted like the Red Sea.
"Every day he does something to impress me on the basketball court," said teammate and Rondo whisperer Keyon Dooling. "I really like when he looks at the rim. Teams are going to be going under on him a lot. If he is hitting that jump shot there is not way you can guard him."
By now we're used to Rondo racking up assists like a North End resident racks up parking tickets, but he set the tone for the game with his distribution of the ball. He had 13 assists and no turnovers in the first half. His lone turnover came at 10:43 of the fourth quarter, when he went for a jump pass and faked out his teammates.
It wasn't a bad pass nor a bad decision. A 16-to-1 turnover ratio in an NBA playoff game is nothing short of brilliant. Rondo once had a 19-0 ratio in a playoff game, the Celtics' triple-overtime loss to the Chicago Bulls in Game 6 of a 2009 first-round series, but he shot 4 of 17 in that game.
The most obvious difference between Games 3 and 4 for Rondo was rebounding. However, there weren't many rebounds to be had, in large part due to Rondo's orchestration of the Boston offense. The Celtics shot 66 percent in the first quarter, 63.6 percent at the half and were shooting 60 percent at the end of three quarters.
Coming into the game, Boston had shot just 40.6 percent from the floor in the series.
I'll take this Rondo over the Game 3 triple-double Rondo any day of the week. If Rondo plays like he did Sunday night then the Celtics can beat the Miami Heat or anyone else in their postseason path.
Perhaps the problem with Rondo is that we try to qualify and quantify him, when you really can't do either. You can't compare him to his All-Star contemporaries at point guard like Chris Paul, Deron Williams or Derrick Rose because his style of play doesn't fit neatly in between the lines.
Rondo is one of the most unique players in the game. Unique is an over-used word. But he is truly one of a kind.
There is no one else in the league who plays like the Celtics' sui generis floor general. There are two All-Star players in the NBA who have a game unmatched by anyone else lacing them up in the league -- Rondo and LeBron James.
James is unique because of his ability to handle the ball and pass like a little man despite being the size of an NFL tight end. Rondo is unique because of his preternatural passing ability and ability to rebound the basketball like a man eight inches taller.
"He is incredible. We get to see him every day. It's still impressive even though you see it every day," said Dooling. "The way he sees the game is totally different. He really is a detail-oriented person. Guys just love to play with him. When he's out our guys don't get their normal shots. He can make every pass from every angle. He is a pretty special passer."
The Celtics won pretty and are now sitting pretty in their playoff series with the Hawks and in the Eastern Conference in general.
No more winning ugly, as both Rondo and the Celtics played beautifully.
...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.