By Rich Levine
BOSTON This is one of many, many stories that will be written about Rajon Rondo after Tuesday nights playoff victory at the Garden.
And for very good reason.
In Bostons 96-93 win over Spike Lees soldiers, Rondo led the Cs with 30 points and seven assists, and added four rebounds, two steals and only four turnovers in 42 minutes of action. Then again, with the way he was moving, those 42 minutes might as well have been 70. He pushed the tempo, and attacked the hoop with an ease and consistency that very few can. He scored 14 points in the first quarter alone, during which he ran up and down on the Knicks like theyd been collectively implanted with Shaquille ONeals ACLs. He was far and away the most dominant player on the court, and the sole reason for the Celtics inspiring start.
I just thought, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce gave me great outlet passes, he said, and I tried to attack the rim.
And he did so at an unbelievable rate. One that had Don Nelson and Doug Moe clicking their glasses, and one that had Rondo, whod typically rather share a bubble bath with Chris Paul than come out of a game, begging for a breather.
I just got tired in the first quarter, he said. I told Doc Rivers to give me a rest. Im comfortable playing the minutes Im playing. It was just that first session was like a track meet.
And Rondo was Usain Bolt.
By the second half, Carmelo Anthonys one-man show had stolen the headlines, and in the games decisive moments, Garnetts grittiness and Rivers superior coaching may have made the biggest difference. But on a night that left much to be desired from the Celtics perspective (I thought we were lucky to win, Rivers said afterward), Rondos performance will have the most lasting effect on how the season ultimately pans out.
Its no secret that the Celtics will only go as far the Rondo takes them. Hes the engine that drives Bostons success, and they can only be at their best when hes at his running, driving, dishing; making things so much simpler for his teammates while creating chaos for the opposition.
But before Tuesday night, it remained to be seen whether he was up to the task.
Were not talking about actual skills andor physical talent. Sure, the jumper can be an issue, and the foul shots are infuriating, but Rondos ability to take over a game has never been in question.
Instead, its his will.
In the weeks, and now, nearly months since the Celtics dealt Kendrick Perkins (whether or not the actual trade is to blame) Rondo wasnt the player Boston needed him to be. He was reluctant to run, unwilling to attack and seemingly terrified to earn a trip to the foul line. For part of that stretch, a bum pinky garnered some of the blame, but that never seemed entirely legitimate. There was something else going on. We just werent sure what it was.
Thats how it goes with Rondo. Youre never sure what hes thinking.
What happens inside the locker room is one thing, but outside hes a blank slate. Hes always playing poker. He always leaves you guessing, scratching your head over what the hell must be going on inside his. And thats how Boston spent the home stretch of the regular season: In a state of Rondo-fueled confusion.
But through it all, the assumption was always that the playoffs would force out those demons; that the bright lights of the national stage would awaken the post deadline malaise. Hes too proud and competitive. He knew how much the postseason meant to not only his own legacy, but to the Big Three's. He also sat out the last week of the regular season, so you knew his body would be ready. You knew Rondo would be ready.
But in Game 1, he still wasnt there. The numbers were decent. For most players, 10-9-9 is more than respectable. But for Rondo and the Celtics, in the big picture, it wasnt enough. There were still fast breaks left on the table. There were still lanes, sometimes wide open, other times only blocked by a hobbled, 34-year-old Chauncey Billups that were passed up in favor of an unnecessary kick out. He was still unwilling to put the team on his back, and this was a team that needed it. Not even for an entire 48 minutes. After all, thats asking a lot. Considering the beating he takes, its asking too much. Sure, they always need his presence. They need his consistency. He's the point guard. He's the engine. But the dominance, those moments when no one is better, can be saved for stretches.
For stretches like the first quarter of Tuesday nights win, when he basically just stepped in and said, OK, guys. Follow me.
Thats what had been missing. And even if it wasnt the deciding span of the game, it marked the return of the Rajon Rondo that the Celtics essentially lost at the trade deadline. The guy who will make the biggest difference in what this team can and will ultimately accomplish.
That was what we talked about, he did it, it was terrific, Rivers said. We got away from it because they started scoring; they scored 26 points in the fourth quarter. But it was good to see he can do that.
Why it took until tonight for him to actually "do that," we may never know. In fact, there may be a time where we just stop trying to figure out Rondo all together.
If he spends the next four years playing as coy and elusive off the court as he is dynamic on it, Rondo will leave Boston as the same enigma he is now.
But for all the mystery, theres one thing we know for sure:
On a team of stars, Rondos is the one that must burn brightest.
And if the Celtics are going to accomplish any of what this city hopes they will, the story we write today will have to be retold many times over.