It doesn’t take Doc Rivers, Gregg Popovich or some other seasoned, intelligent NBA mind to see:
Rajon Rondo is struggling.
I could run through the stats. Rondo has notched single-figure assists in five straight games — for reference, it took him until January 7th (or, 24 games) to notch his fifth single-figure assist game this season. According to NESN, Rondo had not registered single-digit assists in five straight games since 2008. During the five-game span, Rondo is shooting only 17-50 from the field, and has scored in double figures just twice. It’s not just that he’s missing shots; Rondo seems all too content to settle for jumpers, as he did with 1:30 left in last night’s game. He looks either A) incapable of, or B) uninterested in driving into the paint on a consistent basis. In short, the difference between now and earlier this season is daylight and darkness.
The stats don’t tell the whole story. When Rondo was going well, just a couple months ago when there was a legitimate debate about whether Rondo was better than Derrick Rose, he controlled the entire game. There would be games when Rondo would throw 16 or 17 dimes, and I’d hardly mention him in the game recap. Why? Because we expected him to dominate. We expected him to get into the paint whenever he wanted. We expected him to create shots for his teammates, whenever he wanted to. Rondo was playing so well I thought, “He’s past the point of merely creating a good shot for his team every time down the court; he’s actually reached some absurd mastery of the point guard position where he can create a shot for whichever teammate he wants to.”
Seriously. If Ray Allen had the hot hand, Rondo would penetrate into the paint, drawing Allen’s defender just enough to free him for a jumper. If Kevin Garnett needed to get going, Rondo would find a way to influence the defense enough to get Garnett open. And Rondo would get them the shot in their wheelhouse, too. I’m telling you, Rondo wasn’t just great at the beginning of this season. He was playing a true point guard just about as well as the position has ever been played.
At one point this season, Rondo looked like he would threaten John Stockton’s assist record. Now, he’s another poor game or two from letting Steve Nash overtake him for the league lead. He no longer dominates games. He no longer makes his presence felt at all times. He no longer plays a true point guard just about as well as the position has ever been played. Hell, and I’m using slight exaggeration here, he’s now lucky if he just outplays his opponent.
It’s no coincidence the Celtics have struggled recently to score points and make shots. In their past five games, the Celtics have scored 90 points or more only once. They’ve reached 50% shooting only once, and shot less than 46% in the other four games. Keep in mind, these Celtics lead the league with 48.9% shooting. A few weeks ago (maybe even less?), they were above 50%. But when you don’t get as many easy shots, you don’t shoot as well, and you don’t score as many points. When the Celtics were playing well, Rondo was the one finding their easy looks.
If you watch The Wire, Rondo was like Marlo and the Big Three were like Avon Barksdale. Marlo was the young, up-and-coming drug kingpin who seized control of the Baltimore drug game from former emperor (of sorts) Barksdale. During one scene, Marlo let it be known that his intentions were to overtake Barksdale’s operation.
“Barksdale’s weak today,” he said. “And he ain’t working with the ammunition I’ve got.”
When asked what he would do once in charge, Marlo responded, “Sounds like one of them good problems.” He later added, “It’s my turn to wear the crown now.”
It’s Rondo’s turn to wear the crown now. For a long time, it felt like he had already seized it. The Big Three have played great all season, but when the Celtics were playing their best, this was Rondo’s team. He runs the offense. He puts the Big Three in position to score efficiently. He gets everyone involved, and he — as good point guards do — makes basketball easier for everyone around him.
Or at least, he did. Rondo hasn’t been the same for awhile, and his assist totals have diminished by the month. He no longer dictates complete control of the game offensively, and his defense hasn’t been nearly as disruptive of late. He seems like he’s hurt, like his leg’s dragging, like the Plantar Fasciitis and the strained muscles and the twisted ankles have finally caught up to him. Some people have even suggested Rondo’s slump is due to the Perkins trade, though I strongly doubt that’s the case. Still, Rondo’s not the same player he was two months ago, back when one could reasonably argue he was the game’s best point guard.
The Big Three aren’t weak today, but they ain’t working with the ammunition Rondo’s got. He’s the player they need to lead them, to keep everyone on the same page, to energize them during the second night of back-to-backs, to wreak havoc on opposing defenses. Rondo has all the ammunition necessary to wear the crown as Boston plays its way to an NBA championship. So why does he keep firing blanks?