Rajon Rondo started Team USA’s first three exhibition games this summer. He looked to have the team’s starting position all but locked up, until the third game. That’s when everything started to fall apart.
Playing against Lithuania, Rondo turned in his first poor performance of the exhibition tour. One bad game isn’t the end of the world, but that game clearly marks the time that Rondo’s brief run with Team USA started to sour. The next exhibition was against Spain, a hyped matchup of the world’s two best teams, and for the first time this summer Rondo didn’t start. He sat there waiting to play, and kept waiting. The first quarter passed by, and Rondo hadn’t yet played. The second quarter went by, same thing. The game ended, Rondo shook hands with the Spanish players, and he definitely wasn’t very sweaty. He had received a DNP-CD.
A few days later Rondo withdrew from the team. So they say, at least. There was speculation that he was actually the team’s final cut. Whether Rondo was cut or not, one thing is for certain.
Derrick Rose had already stolen Rondo’s starting spot.
Motivation can come from a lot of places, and we can only speculate where Rajon Rondo draws his. But watching him play this season, it’s easy to see he has plenty of it.
Once upon a time, Rondo took certain nights off. Especially against lesser opponents or point guards he deemed unworthy, Rondo would take it easy. He would disappear for quarters, even games at a time. He was great last season, yes, a deserving All-Star, but there was still an inconsistency to his game. There was still the nagging concern: why doesn’t Rajon Rondo play with the same brilliance every night?
Now those concerns are gone. Rondo has finally taken the leap from “All-Star who can dominate on certain nights” to “superstar who dominates even on off nights.” The mark of a true superstar is that he doesn’t have bad games. Yeah, Kevin Durant was awful the other night against the Los Angeles Clippers. But he still managed 16 points and six rebounds. Most players in the NBA would kill for that production, and Durant did it while functioning at his worst. That’s what superstars do. And Rondo is quickly proving himself to be a superstar.
Look at what Rondo did the other night against Milwaukee: 17 points, 15 assists, 8 rebounds, 3 steals, 7-10 shooting. And I came away from the game thinking to myself, “Rondo wasn’t himself tonight.” He is reaching (has already reached?) the level where he now produces every single night, whether he brings his “A game” or not. An analyst the other night (I think it was Jon Barry) said that Rondo’s in the zone right now. It was weird to hear because that term is normally used on shooters who get the hot hand, but Barry was right. The game is slowing down for Rondo and he has learned how to control games every single time he steps on the court. Even when Rondo plays badly, he’s a threat to have 15 assists and make plays to help his team win. That’s what superstars do.
But how? How did Rondo take the next step in his basketball maturity? How did he find what it takes to make the leap? How did he become a superstar? One could claim that it was his natural progression. He has improved drastically every year since he was drafted, and he’s still only 24 years old. His learning curve suggested he would become a superstar at some point. It makes sense that “some point” would be now. But I’ve got a different theory.
Rondo is using this summer’s failures as motivation. It’s early in the season still, but so far it’s as if Rondo’s season is becoming one long extended middle finger directed straight at Coach K. I wrote the following in one of my game recaps:
“Now it’s as if Rondo is using every quarter, every play, to compile a highlight tape for Coach K: ‘Hey, Krzyzewski! 24 assists! How do you like them apples? Yo, Coach K! 67 assists through four games! Suck on that!’ Rondo has never lacked confidence, but he now plays every night like he believes himself to be the NBA’s best point guard. Or, at least, like he’s trying to prove that point to everybody else.”
To think Rondo is motivated only by Coach K would be silly. He’s also motivated by winning a championship, and winning as many games as possible, and I’m sure he’s motivated to earn individual honors as well (even if he would never admit it).
And then there’s Derrick Rose. Rondo MUST be motivated by him.
There has always been a rivalry of sorts between Rondo and Rose. Chris Paul and Deron Williams have been the clear-cut best point guards in the NBA, and they were always lumped together in the same discussion. Rondo and Rose were in another discussion, one focusing on the best young point guards in the game. There was a qualifier to their greatness, the word “young” that got thrown in there to show that Rondo and Rose weren’t in the same league as Paul and Williams. Qualifier or not, Rondo and Rose were bound together by shared greatness, the position they played, and their location in the Eastern Conference. When you heard about one, hearing about the other was just a matter of time. (“Rondo just had 17 assists.” — “Alright, but Rose had 38 points!”)
The Celtics and Bulls met in the 2009 playoffs, and the two rising stars demonstrated their greatness on a larger stage. Their play was positively delightful that series. While Rondo and his seemingly never-ending string of triple-doubles led the Celtics to victory, it was clear that the future was limitless for both men. There was also something that set them apart from other players in the league, something aside from their talent — both are unique players. At the point guard position, we have never seen a package of strength, explosion and athleticism quite like Rose’s. And Rondo’s jumpshot-less, lightning-quick, behind-the-back-pass-faking, fill-box-scores-in-every-way-possible repertoire differentiated him from any point guard in the league today, and perhaps any point guard to ever play the game. The two men are special. They are great. They are different.
They are also now clear rivals. They are the Eastern Conference’s two best point guards, and this summer linked them more than ever before. Rose stole Rondo’s starting position while Rondo received a DNP-CD. Cut or not, Coach K thought Derrick Rose was better than Rajon Rondo. Or at least thought he was playing better a the time, or that he was a better fit for that team.
If my theory about Rondo’s motivation is correct, Coach K’s putdown drives him. The fact that Rose beat him out bothers Rondo to no end. Rondo already believed himself to be the world’s best point guard. Now he’s on a mission to make everyone else a believer, too.
There’s no need for a qualifier anymore. Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose are two of the NBA’s best point guards. They are also part of a rivalry forged by shared greatness, past playoff matchups, and the fierce competition of two teammates this past summer.
When Rose beat out Rondo for Team USA’s starting point guard position, he won that battle. But the war should continue for many years.