Rajon Rondo slid in unnoticed, or as unnoticed as someone in a pastel yellow sweater can be in a room full of reporters. He had been dominant throughout the playoffs -- a true superstar -- and in his final game of the 2012 season he recorded yet another triple double, his fourth of the postseason.
Doc Rivers, already growing emotional with what may have been the last game of a hugely successful era, put a hand on Rondo’s shoulder. “I’m going to give it to this guy,” Rivers said ending his final press conference of the season. “Like I said earlier, he’s wonderful.”
In short, clipped answers, the future of the Celtics summed up the present.
“Great season,” Rondo said. “We let this one slip away.”
Someone asked if they had overachieved to get to this point and Rondo shot back in his trademark annoyed icy deadpan, “Nope.”
He will never give in, never accept someone else’s version of what he believes to be an objective truth. Ask him about his gaudy assist numbers and he’ll answer, “Guys made shots,” which is both completely true and also incomplete. Try to get too deep inside his head and you’ll get the glare.
His numbers are overwhelming at times and often don’t tell the full story. You have to dig deep to find the full impact of Rondo’s game and even then you’re still left wanting more information.
Physically, Rondo is ready to lead this team into whatever the future holds. The question has always been one of personality. To put it another way, is Rondo ready to be the leader both on and off the court? If Kevin Garnett does indeed retire, that question immediately becomes the most important one for the Celtics this offseason.
“We don’t really celebrate individual stuff,” Rivers said. “Everybody buys into team around here. Rondo, Paul [Pierce], Kevin, I think they sacrifice their individual games so much to try and help the team win. So for me, that’s where I’m most proud of Rondo. I thought he was phenomenal in that regard. He was our leader on the floor.”
For the first time in his career, Rondo earned a spot on the All-NBA team with a third team nod and he finished eighth in the Most Valuable Player voting. Averaging a career-high in assists with 11.9 per game, Rondo led the league in that category during a campaign that was highlighted by a 24-game streak of double-digit assists that he’ll carry into the regular season. He also posted six triple doubles during the regular season, which were only five more than any other player in the NBA.
Rondo also reversed a two-year slide and was the second-best rebounding point guard in the league by Rebound Rate. He was more aggressive with his own offense, getting off more attempts and dishing out more assists at the rim than any other player in the game by a wide margin.
What held him back were turnovers and shooting woes. He posted a career-low field goal percentage (45 percent) and made just 60 percent of his free throws. There’s reason to believe that he can reverse that field goal trend. He shot 39 percent on his long jump shots, about league average, and made an astonishing 56 percent of his jumpers from the right elbow. Where he struggled was at the rim, shooting less than 60 percent for the first time in his career. The important thing, however, was that he took those shots in the paint, a positive sign of the aggressive Rondo.
What stood out the most about his regular season was how utterly dependent the team’s offense was on his presence. The beginning of the second quarter when Rondo would usually take his first rest was often cruel and unusual punishment to the basketball gods.
At times it seemed that the Celtics couldn’t even run an offensive set, let alone score points when he wasn’t on the court. When Rondo was out of the game, they scored 94.61 points per 100 possessions, a sub-Bobcatsian level of offensive futility.
A case was soon made that Rondo was the Celtics most important player, if not their best. If you look closer, you’ll find the answer is and was still Garnett, but there’s no doubt that Rondo took a positive step forward this past season and was no worse than their second-best player.
All that was just a prelude to playoff-Rondo who took his game to a whole new level. He averaged over 17 points a game while shooting 47 percent from the field, 70 percent from the free throw line, and still leading the league in assists. This was the attacking Rondo so many hope for each night and what truly stood out were the consistent nature of his performances.
Rondo wasn’t immune to the occasional bad game, but they were usually a function of defenses designed to stop him first and foremost, and he almost always had an adjustment ready for the next one. His 44-point performance in Game 2 of the Miami series was one of the signature games anyone had during the postseason and helped him emerge as a superstar player, not just an All-Star component.
“Well, I’ve already thought he was in the class,” Rivers said. “So if he’s not, now he is.”
There’s no doubt that Rondo has been in that class at times during his career, but the question has always been one of consistency. By now we’re all familiar with the regular-season Rondo that occasionally pops up to deliver a five-point, six-assist night somewhere in the Midwest. We also know that it would be impossible to the point of absurdity to ask Rondo to play at a playoff-intensity for all 82 games because there would be nothing left of him by the All-Star break.
Because of his slashing high-energy style, Rondo’s game is difficult physically and after six years in the league, he’s earned the right to pace himself throughout the regular season. Where he took strides this season is by still managing to run the offense when he did lay back on the perimeter. Perhaps his assist-streak had something to do with it, but during the second half of the season there were very few games where one could say with any conviction that he didn’t show up.
There were other positive signs, as well. He embraced Avery Bradley and was something of a mentor to the 21-year-old, although he took pains to downplay his impact. “I’m not trying to be his vet,” he said one night. This was a sign of behind-the-scenes leadership often associated with Garnett.
The Rondo-Bradley backcourt, born of desperation and injury, was a revelation to the Celtics. Suddenly an aging team had new life and in 187 minutes together, the new starting five was almost 20 points better than their opponents per 100 minutes. To put that in perspective, the Bulls’ lineup of Derrick Rose, Ronnie Brewer, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah was 16 points better than the opposition in 286 minutes together.
With Bradley defending the other team’s ballhandler, Rondo was free to cause havoc with his gambling style and also able to take a breather on defense. It was also fascinating to watch Rondo play with a younger teammate, someone capable of keeping up with him ion the break and able to finish at the rim once he got there.
This is the great unknown for the Celtics: What would happen if Danny Ainge was able to assemble a young, athletic team around the most creative open-court player in the league?
In flashes, we saw Rondo turn Chris Wilcox into a dunking machine and even JaJuan Johnson had a handful of highlight-reel alley-oops running with Rondo. The flipside of that was there were too many times when Rondo was leading a break only to find no one able to keep up with his frantic pace.
We may finally get those answers and once again unlock another Rondo mystery.
SUMMER LEAGUE SCHEDULE
With three draft picks including two first rounders and a pair of rookies who didn’t see much playing time last season, the Celtics are going to take the unusual step of fielding teams in both the Orlando and Las Vegas summer leagues.
This is an important summer for JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore who both showed flashes of talent but didn’t get enough consistent playing time to properly judge their rookie seasons. Late addition Sean Williams could also see some time this summer. The Celtics have until the end of July to decide on whether to guarantee his contract for next season.
Here’s their schedule for both venues:
ORLANDO (All times local)
July 9: OKC, 1 p.m.
July 10: Brooklyn, 5 p.m.
July 11: Indiana, 11 a.m.
July 12: Detroit, 11 a.m.
July 13: Orlando, 10 a.m.
July 16: Atlanta, 1 p.m.
July 17: Chicago, 7 p.m.
July 19: Sacramento, 3:30 p.m.
July 21: Milwaukee, 7:30 p.m.
July 22: Clippers, 3 p.m.
The Celtics would like to trade up in the draft, but if they stay put at 21 and 22 in the first round they should have a solid selection of big men to choose from. Among the interesting names: St. Bonaventure forward Andrew Nicholson, Syracuse center Fab Melo and Iowa State forward Royce White.
We’ll have our first mock draft early this week, but be sure to check out our ever-growing database of prospects on Green Street.