A lot of things I didn’t expect happened yesterday.
I didn’t expect Reggie Evans and Amir Johnson to outplay Shaq and Kevin Garnett. I didn’t expect Leandro Barbosa’s smack on Ray Allen’s elbow to go uncalled. I didn’t expect for Jose Calderon to receive a technical foul for imploring a ref to use help, especially when the ref later asked for help and overturned the call. I didn’t expect the Celtics to lose to Toronto, and I most definitely didn’t expect Andrea Bargnani to look like an actual number one pick.
But the most surprising aspect of yesterday’s game was Nate Robinson’s performance. Mr. Miniature was scintillating.
22 points. 8-14 shooting. 16 points in the first quarter, spurring an eight-point Celtics lead. An overall +20 performance in the plus/minus column.
All that, and the Celtics still missed Rajon Rondo. A lot.
Rondo averages more than 14 assists per game. The Celtics registered only 17 yesterday. To put that into perspective, Rondo notched 17 dimes — all by himself — in four of the 12 games he has played this season. Without Rondo, the Celtics are clearly a different team. (The proper response: “No kidding, Jay. We didn’t have to see the C’s play without him to know that.”)
As good as Robinson was yesterday, he put to rest the “Rondo only piles up so many assists because he plays alongside so many stars” argument. (Is that even a real argument? Does anybody actually believe that? At this point, probably not.) But Robinson played point guard next to the same stars. He had two assists yesterday, in 35 minutes. Rondo’s season low, in case you were wondering, is seven assists.
The truth is, Rondo is close to a historic assists pace because he’s running the Celtics’ offense almost perfectly. He doesn’t just capitalize on others’ talents; he makes others’ jobs far easier. Robinson, as well as he played yesterday, doesn’t have the ability to do that.
Perhaps the easiest measure of Rondo’s effect on the whole Celtics team was Shaquille O’Neal’s production. Yesterday, Shaq made only 2-8 field goals. The previous three games, with Rondo playing, Shaq had shot 18-22 from the field. I can’t attribute all of Shaq’s misses yesterday to Rondo’s absence (Shaq did miss one bunny after a nice Robinson dish), but Shaq and Rondo have developed an impressive chemistry.
Their relationship is pretty simple: Rondo probes the lane and draws Shaq’s defender, while Shaq spaces himself away from the defense in preparation of receiving Rondo’s pass. Rondo then passes Shaq the ball, and Shaq lays it (or dunks it) through the hoop. It’s not rocket science, but it does take Rondo’s wizardry to make it happen. And Nate Robinson, even when he scores buckets like yesterday, is no wizard.
Early in yesterday’s game, when Nate was playing like an MVP on track for 60+ points, I noticed something the Celtics were doing.
“The C’s aren’t confident throwing outlet passes to Robinson,” I told my brother. Yes, I just quoted myself. They weren’t. Ray Allen looked Robinson off a couple times and dribbled the ball upcourt himself. So did Paul Pierce. When Rondo’s in the game, the C’s almost always outlet the ball to him and run. They trust Rondo to 1) make the right decision, and 2) get them the ball if they’re open. The Celtics didn’t have the same trust in Robinson.
Don’t get me wrong, Nate looked good yesterday. Very good. But 1) I wouldn’t expect him to be that electric every night. If there’s one thing Robinson is not, it’s tall. If there’s a second thing he is not, it’s consistent. And 2) no matter how well Robinson plays, the Boston Celtics will miss Rajon Rondo. (Proper response: “Duh.”)
I’m not putting the loss on Robinson’s shoulders, either. He was a bright spot in a dreary afternoon. The loss was on the bench. But that’s a whole ‘nother story.