The Celtics say Rajon Rondo missed last night’s game because of an injured pinky finger. My gut says Rondo needed the rest more for mental reasons than anything else.
Do I think his finger’s hurting? Sure. He tapes two fingers together each night, has been subbed out of games in obvious pain at least once recently, and has occasionally grimaced over the past few weeks—-during which time he’s shooting something like negative-12% from the field. But the finger doesn’t explain everything. It doesn’t explain why he still shows flashes of the old Rondo. It doesn’t explain why he hasn’t played much (any?) defense, while point guards like Kyle Lowry, Mo Williams and Brandon Jennings have eaten him alive. It doesn’t explain why I saw him, on three different occasions during the Bobcats game, casually strolling to half-court while his teammates were running a fast break without him. It doesn’t explain why he hasn’t cut to the basket to take advantage of people roaming off him lately, like he used to do every night. It doesn’t explain why he hasn’t chased down nearly as many loose balls. It doesn’t explain why Doc Rivers defiantly denied that Rondo was hurt, right up until the day he finally sat him for a game.
Rondo transformed from an evolutionary John Stockton to Boston’s scapegoat, overnight. He went from whipping no-look passes around his back, captivating the imagination of everyone in Boston, dominating most games (almost every game, really) on both ends of the floor, and quickly and forcefully seizing the Celtics’ reigns from the Big Three, to, well, this. To the point that Rondo sits out a game, apparently due to injury reasons, and very few people buy the injury excuse. The point where I see Kevin Garnett praise Delonte West (“His ability to compete is higher than anybody I’ve been around for a while—he’s going to compete for 48 minutes”) and wonder if he’s actually taking a shot at Rondo. The point where I know there’s something wrong (that’s obvious), but I don’t know whether it’s injuries, some strange mental weakness partially caused by the Perk trade, or both. The point where comparing Rondo to Manny Ramirez makes sense.
Wait, Manny Ramirez? As in, the baseball player? Hear me out. Like Rondo, Manny was one of his game’s smartest players. The same way Rondo sees the floor and understands angles, Manny knew batting. He was a hitting savant, capable of rolling out of bed, working the count full, fouling off three pitches he didn’t like, finally finding his pitch, and launching it 430 feet to the opposite field. As such a natural batter, Manny didn’t have to work as hard as his peers. He could have coasted on talent alone, made a boat load of money, put up good numbers during a long career, and hardly broken a sweat while doing it. But instead, he worked. And worked some more. By all accounts, he spent as much time in the cage as anyone. He watched so much film, he probably could have told you exactly what percentage of the time Roy Halladay threw a two-strike changeup. He constantly worked to improve his craft, to understand his swing, to look for that one hole and make it a strength. Manny was born to hit, but he also spent hours upon hours refining his approach, to the point where he should be considered one of baseball’s smartest hitters ever as well as one of its most talented.
Does Rondo work that hard? Just check his stats from his first four years, and how they’ve gotten progressively (and substantially) better each season. Is he smart like that? Doc Rivers says Rondo spends so much time watching film, he sometimes knows more than Boston’s coaching staff about opponents. Rivers also calls Rondo the smartest player he ever coached. (Note: smarter than Patrick O’Bryant and J.R. Giddens, that means.) But I’m not comparing Rondo to Manny because they’re both intelligent talents—there are plenty of those out there. Manny was an enigma, and Rondo’s starting to become one.
There would be days when Manny would walk to first base after hitting a ground ball, and we’d wonder why, and the reason could have been as simple as, “The clubhouse attendant forgot Manny wanted two packs of Big League Chew today.” Manny butted heads with teammates, the Red Sox’ traveling secretary, and front office members. Even so, after all those arguments, I’m not sure anyone really thought he was a bad guy—he was just quirky. He was just Manny Being Manny, and you never knew what would set him off, which days he’d try his hardest, or which days he’d decide, “You know what? I’d rather get traded today.”
Is Rondo quite as enigmatic? No. I admit the comparison’s not perfect. Manny was as quirky as they get, a man who once high-fived a fan during the middle of a play, who took cell phone calls inside the Green Monster during pitching changes, so Rondo will probably never reach Manny’s level. But he’s working on it.
He loves the children’s board game “Connect Four,” and brings it almost everywhere he goes. He used to fall asleep during every math class, but when he wasn’t sleeping he’d blurt out answers to questions the class was supposed to solve. “I’d be in the back going to sleep, wake up and ace the test,” said Rondo. He’s been called stubborn and he’s been called moody, and that’s just by his coach. He’s been publicly chastised for being a disruption to the team, and put on the trading block even though he’s obviously the centerpiece of Boston’s future. He has been late to playoff games, and suspended on multiple occasions by his first high school coach. He clashed with Tubby Smith at Kentucky, and has butted heads with Doc Rivers in Boston. He bucks authority regardless of where it comes from, does not accept advice without proof that it works, and has considered himself the best point guard in the NBA since long before he was anywhere near that conversation.
Now Rondo’s best friend Kendrick Perkins has been traded, and the loss might have been enough to send Rondo into a tailspin. The Perkins trade probably isn’t the only reason for Rondo’s recent slump; hell, it might not even be a reason. But listen to Rondo explain a week ago what it’s been like to deal with his friend’s departure:
“It’s a mix and match of things,” he said slowly. “I haven’t been playing well. Aches and pains. And we had the trade with Perk [Kendrick Perkins].
“He’s a guy I spent a lot of time with. I’m not saying that’s why I’m playing bad. You just appreciate somebody more when they’re gone.
“We were best friends. We’re talking more now than we did when he was here. It’s been tough. I know other guys have been through it, but I haven’t.
“We went through everything together, right from the beginning. I missed the USA basketball camp so I could be at his wedding.
“When we were on the road, there was never any question we’d be hanging out together. It was ‘What are we going to do tonight?’ or ‘Let’s go here and there.’ So now it’s a little different.
“I’m not saying I’m no lost puppy. He didn’t die or anything. But he’s a good person.”
So is Rondo hurt? Missing Perk? Disillusioned by something, maybe because he lost his Connect Four set or the Celtics’ locker manager forgot to leave two packs of Big League Chew in his locker? All of the above?
Truthfully, I have no idea.