For three years, Celtics coach Doc Rivers has been pleading with Rajon Rondo to run.
Not just off steals, not just on the fast break, not just once in a while. Rivers wants Rondo to push the ball up the floor on nearly every possession.
For a player whose game is speed, it seemed odd that the message didn’t get through all the time. But over the past three weeks, it finally has. It’s not a coincidence the Celtics have won 12 in a row, with Rondo putting up numbers that may earn him a trip to Phoenix for the All-Star Game on Feb. 15.
“Just knowing the game better,” said Rondo of the increased urgency. “I’m trying to use my quickness more. I see a lot of teams do it to us around the league. I try to do the same thing. Sometimes you get defenses slipping and you catch them uneasy.”
The point guard’s jump in statistics is reason for many opponents to be even more uneasy. They know what to expect out of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen. But Rondo’s assists this season have jumped from 5.1 per game through 22 games to 7.6, and his shooting percentage has leaped from 49.2 to 52.4. The spoils of a more up-tempo style have rippled throughout the stat sheet. No one has benefited more than Allen, whose shooting is up from 44.5 percent last year to 50 percent this year.
“I attribute that to the way Rajon is playing,” Allen said. “He’s pushing the ball up the floor, and teams are back on their heels defensively.”
When he walks the ball up the floor — as he did, at times, against the Pacers last Sunday, when he turned the ball over six times — defenses can set up and sag off both Rondo and Kendrick Perkins. The offense becomes more reliant on Allen, Pierce, or Garnett to make a tough shot rather than knock down an easy one.
“When he doesn’t do it our offense is night and day,” Rivers said. “Now he becomes a liability. Now they can help off of him. When he’s pushing the ball, now he becomes a factor.
“Every time we walked the ball up, Indiana left Rajon and Perk. When we’re running up the floor, and Perk’s running too, they have to guard Perk, they have to guard Rajon, and then it’s one-on-one coverage with Kevin, Paul, and Ray.”
Rivers said one way he finally convinced Rondo to push it up every time was refusing to call plays for him from the sideline.
“He’ll look over to me and I tell him to just go,” the coach said. “If I want a play called, I’ll stop you. But you’ve been here for three years, you know what to run.”
Rondo said doing it consistently is slowly becoming a habit. It’s one habit Rivers doesn’t want him to break.
“It’s not easy,” the coach said. “I remember, as a guard, they always wanted me to play with my speed. But you just get in the habit of wanting to set it up instead of pushing it up every time.”
When you’re challenging the best start in the history of a storied franchise such as the Celtics, it’s hard to find things that aren’t going well. Rivers said he looked at some video on a rare day off this week and saw things defensively that can be improved.
Picking out the bench struggles didn’t require as much research.
Though the starters have dominated during the winning streak, the times when reserves have made up the majority of the lineup have resulted in a series of lost leads, easy baskets allowed, and isolation offense.
“Our bench has to improve,” Rivers said. “It’s got to be more consistent. They have a good quarter here and there. But we need to get them to be consistent game to game. They’ve been up and down.
“They’re young, it’s a young bench, and maybe that’s what we have to expect for a while. But we need them to be better.”
Rivers went with an all-reserve unit — with some great success — at the start of the winning streak three week ago, but he has gone back to keeping either Pierce or Allen out with the bench corps in most cases.
“I think our focus has to be more defensively,” Pierce said of those circumstances. “I think that’s where we’ve struggled. When the starting unit comes out, we really have to emphasize our defense and getting back.”
Scott Souza covers the Celtics for OT and can be reached at email@example.com
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This week's OT cover
OT beat writersMaureen Mullen brings you Red Sox information and insights.
Tom Wilcox covers the Patriots.
Scott Souza is all over the Celtics.
Danny Picard is on the ice with the Bruins.
Mike McDonald takes a look at the humorous side of Boston sports