Doc Rivers called a meeting Friday morning. The purpose was to define roles for every player on the team. Rivers thought it was necessary, even at this early point of the season.
“I didn’t anticipate after the roles that we’d be rolling in the locker room,” Rivers said. “It clearly was the right time.”
The reference was to a fight between Von Wafer and Delonte West, which has already cast an unfortunate pall over this season that holds so much promise and seems particularly out of place on a team that seems so together.
The incident threatened to overshadow whatever took place on the Garden floor Friday night when the Celtics played the new-look Knicks. But, as he so often does, Rajon Rondo found a new way to take control of the situation and put the focus back on the court.
Rondo dished out a career-high 24 assists, and even given the rather loose nature of some of the ones that were awarded to him, it was still a jaw-dropping performance. Rondo not only put the attention back on the game he also made his own triple-double (10 points, 10 rebounds) largely superfluous in a 105-101 victory.
“We all know he’s an influence on the game,” Kevin Garnett said. “Stats are one thing but the influence and how he controls the game is another. There’s very few that can do it. He’s a special player, man.”
Garnett was special in his own right Friday, going for 24 points and 10 rebounds in just under 30 minutes before fouling out, while Paul Pierce added 25 points and 14 rebounds.
That’s exactly what Rivers was talking about Friday morning when he reinforced the role that each and every player has on the team. Garnett was told that he needs to be more aggressive. Pierce and Ray Allen are the scorers. Shaquille O’Neal is the rebounder and enforcer, and so on.
“I think it was great,” Pierce said. “He’s not ashamed to tell you. That’s what you love about coach, he’s so straight-forward. Sometimes it’s going to be the hard truth, but it’s what’s good for the team and we respect him for that and it makes us a better team at the end of the day.”
That’s Rivers' genius, but it also appears that it will be tested by something that hasn’t arisen too often over the last three years and that’s where we must start:
THE WAFER-WEST SITUATION
By now we know some of the details about the latest altercation between Wafer and West, but we don’t know everything. We don’t know why there is so much animosity between the two.
There have been hints of betrayal and also age-old competition because let’s face it: When West returns from his 10-game suspension, he is more than likely to assume a prominent spot in the Celtics rotation.
Wafer, on the other hand, is hanging on. He had to fight off a spirited charge by Stephane Lasme in the preseason to claim the last open roster spot and even with West out, he has played only nine minutes and taken just one shot in three games.
But that’s not the biggest reason why the Celtics were upset. “We don’t talk about what happens in the locker room,” Shaquille O’Neal said. “You know that.”
And so, in not answering the question, Shaq said all that needed to be said. Someone leaked the details to Alex Kennedy of Hoops World in a story that was very favorable to Wafer’s position and now it has become a full-blown controversy.
Before the game Wafer tied himself in knots denying the incident when a simple “no comment” would have sufficed. “You have to talk to Doc and Danny [Ainge],” Wafer said. “I don’t know anything about it. First time hearing about it.”
A few minutes later, Rivers confirmed the whole thing as Ainge did hours earlier. “There was fight and that’s all you need to know,” the coach said. “I’m going to leave it alone, but obviously I’m not real thrilled with it. We’ll handle it.”
He went on to say, “It should stay inside the locker room. It didn’t and that’s OK, but we’re just going to leave it alone.”
Rivers won’t just leave it alone, of course, because that’s not how the Celtics conduct their business. They pride themselves on handling confrontations up front and leaving the sordid details away from the prying eyes of the press.
O’Neal has said that he was the one guy West would talk to when they were in Cleveland and he did confirm that the two have talked about the events of Friday afternoon.
“We have,” O’Neal said. “The ironic thing is I’ve been in 20 years and I’ve seen it before. Every year I’ve been in the league I’ve seen it, just like that. For this athletic culture it’s normal. To you guys it might not be normal so you only get part of the story.”
We definitely got one part of the story and no doubt the rest will come out eventually. For the Celtics, that’s the problem. This is a distraction they don’t need and frankly, don’t need to tolerate.
For all of West’s personal issues, Wafer will have a very difficult time winning a popularity contest with him in this town and he might have an even harder time winning one in his own locker room.
West doesn’t come out of this looking great either. These are the situations he needs to control because he’s got an awful lot to lose if he can’t deal with them. He’s in a uniquely perfect situation to rehabilitate himself and his place in the game on a team that needs him with a coach and general manager who believe in him.
We don’t really know how it all went down Friday, but we know it did and for the Celtics that means that we know too much. Now it needs to be dealt with.
RAJON RONDO, EXPLAINED (KIND OF)
How do you come up with adjectives, pronouns and predicates to do Rondo justice? There are the numbers, obviously. He assisted on more than half his team’s made shots and that left him tied with Isiah Thomas for the most assists ever recorded in a triple-double performance.
Those are both weird statistical notes. Objective, perhaps, but very weird and they don’t really get anywhere when trying to define Rondo.
So it falls on Garnett to provide some analysis.
“Put it like this,” Garnett said. “If you’re not ready, he’ll embarrass you. He’ll hit you right in the face with the ball. He’ll definitely get on your behind if you ain’t ready. It’s beautiful watching him grow and watching how hard he wants it and how hard he goes. Sometimes he’ll see something that you don’t see and he’ll make you see it. That’s the point guard vision. He has a very high IQ when it comes to basketball. He understands angles. That’s what makes him unique.”
Rondo, meanwhile, focused on what he got wrong.
“I missed a couple of times,” he said. “I know I missed Ray [Allen] early in the game. Me and Kevin weren’t on the same page with the first couple of turnovers that I had. I just stuck with it and kept going.”
That last sentence was the thing that pleased Rivers the most. That might not have happened three years ago, two years ago or even last year, but Rondo is threatening to rewrite everything we thought we knew about him and how he plays the game.
If only we could figure him out.
THE INJURIES ARE ALREADY MOUNTING
The Celtics are not naïve. They know that at some point one or both of the O’Neals are going to be hurt. They just hope it’s not at the same time. That might be false hope.
Jermaine O’Neal missed the game with swelling in his knee, which he felt during the Cleveland game. Add that to the hamstring injury and the torn cartilage in his left wrist and Jermaine O’Neal is officially “banged up.”
“No damage,” Rivers said. “They’ve done MRIs. That’s the good news. We’ve just got to let the swelling go down. I hope it doesn’t happen, but we anticipate this could happen one or two games, that neither one is available. We just hope it’s not for a long stretch.”
Shaquille O’Neal banged knees with Amar’e Stoudemire and limped off the court, back to the locker room. “I’m all right,” he said. “Just go home, get some rest.”
Shaq doesn’t think he’ll miss any time, but that leaves Semih Erden as the lone big man behind him and Erden has a shoulder injury and hasn’t played yet.
In their absence, Glen Davis continued to do good work, piling up 16 points and six rebounds in 24 minutes of work. The Celtics were able to get away with a small lineup against the Knicks, but it won’t work that way most nights.
Asked if Erden was ready, Rivers said, “I don’t know, but he works at it. So I’d start Baby, obviously. Let’s hope we don’t have to go there.”
The Celtics have three days before their next game and they need that time to rest and recuperate. Unfortunately, that’s not the only thing that needs to be resolved.