When it comes to Rajon Rondo, there are often more questions than answers. His game is unlike anyone else’s and while his numbers can be a reflection of his successes or failures, his play is more often dictated by feel rather than objective data. Put it this way: Gaudy assist totals look great in the box score, but don’t often paint the full picture of his performance.
What is undeniable is that he has been going through a slump, even though Celtics coach Doc Rivers took great pains to not label it as such.
“I don't know if he's slumping. He's not playing great right now, but I don't think he's slumping or anything,” Rivers told reporters Monday night in New Jersey. “He's just going through a stretch. It's a long season.”
Over the last five games Rondo has attempted 50 shots and missed 33 of them. He’s also taken just two free throws, which is not what Rivers had in mind when he said he wanted his point guard to get his attempts up after the All-Star break.
Rondo has 34 assists during this stretch, and he’s been tagged with 17 turnovers, which has been a season-long struggle for him. He also hasn’t had a double-digit assist game, his longest stretch without one since December of 2008.
He’s mixed in some relatively decent performances during this run with a handful of awful games, such as Monday’s 1-for-10, four-turnover showing against the Nets. Making matters worse, he also turned his ankle and got clobbered on a hard screen from Brook Lopez in the backcourt, which someone should have called out long before it happened.
Rondo’s struggles have mirrored the Celtics’ as they have gone 2-3 during that stretch and lost three of their last four. He’s been outplayed by both Mo and Deron Williams, which runs counter to the overblown theory that Rondo only gets up for marquee matchups.
Beyond that bit of pop psychology, Rondo has carried the brunt of the Celtics’ trade-deadline maneuvers more than most. In the first seven games since Danny Ainge turned over a third of the roster, Rondo logged about 41 minutes a night. That was cause for concern, but Rondo has been dealing with a heavy minutes burden all season at almost 38 a game, which ranks in the top 15 for all players.
Thanks to the signing and emergence of Carlos Arroyo, Rondo has played a far more manageable 90 minutes over the last three. With Delonte West possibly returning Wednesday, more help is on the way.
That’s ultimately what may be happening here. Rivers noted before the Bucks game that getting the top seed was no longer the team’s main priority. What matters most to him is getting his players healthy and ready for the playoffs. He especially doesn’t want to burnout his four All-Stars before the playoffs and Rondo’s needle has been running in the red since the All-Star break.
It’s also possible that Rondo is hurt. He’s battled foot, ankle and leg problems all season and it’s not as if those issues magically disappear just because he’s not listed on the injury report.
All of this remains something of a mystery because Rondo remains as difficult to read as ever. He rarely talks to the press after practices and his post-game sessions – when he has them – are often terse and unenlightening. He has, however, steadfastly refused to use either injuries or too many minutes as an excuse throughout the season.
His lack of interaction with the media is entirely his prerogative, but in the absence of answers speculation takes hold. Whether he’s hurt, mentally or physically fried or just going through a bad stretch is open for debate and there’s probably truth in all three.
On the other end of the speculative spectrum is the notion that he’s still ticked off at the trade that sent his friend Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City. That seems frankly dubious as Rondo is far too professional and proud to let that affect his play to such a degree.
It was only a year ago that Rondo was being talked about in the same breath as Chris Paul and Deron Williams in the point guard triumvirate. Now he has been passed in that discussion by Derrick Rose, with Russell Westbrook coming on fast.
Comparing Rondo with those players is truly an apples and oranges argument since he uses almost half as many possessions. (‘Usage’ is defined as any possession that ends with a player taking a shot or free throw or committing a turnover). To put it another way, their job is to score while Rondo’s role is to distribute. Plus, great as they are, none of those players even comes close to Rondo’s postseason pedigree, which is where he has always felt his standing among his peers should be ultimately judged.
That said, Rondo’s regular season has been a weird one, even by his unusual standards. His assists are way up, but his scoring and shot attempts are down. He’s taken fewer shots inside and struggled shooting out to 15 feet, but his percentages on long 2’s and 3’s are up from last season. His free throw shooting remains stuck at 55 percent and is a legitimate concern in the playoffs. (Numbers via Hoop Data).
On a fairly orthodox team, Rondo remains the one true wild card. He’s the only player who can lift the Celtics to greater heights or cause them to drop like an anvil when he’s having an off night. When he struggles like he has, the Celtics’ offense runs in quicksand. That plus the legitimate concerns about their interior defense have been a bad mix for a team trying to hold off Chicago for the best record in the Eastern Conference.
The Celtics success this postseason will ultimately depend on their four All-Stars and there’s ample time for Rondo to get right before mid-April. Whether there’s enough time to keep up with the Bulls is another matter.