His hands are oven mitts made of flesh, the enlarged hands of a natural-born point guard. They are the paws of a man twice his size—you know, if twelve-foot men existed. They allow him to cradle a basketball in ways that make the mind spin, creativity flowing through every phalange like the webs Spiderman casts from his wrist. Through these hands, these oversized gifts that help him to excel at James Naismith’s finest creation, Rajon Rondo carves his imprints on a basketball game. At his best, he controls a game’s ebbs and flows, its pace, its peaks and valleys.
At his best, he is a magician, one who relies on speed and cunning to misdirect opponents’ attention from his real tricks, with those yardstick fingers yo-yo’ing the basketball and waiting to seize any slight opening. Usually once a game, sometimes more, sometimes not at all, Rondo palms the ball in his right hand, and the ball is swallowed whole. He whips the basketball around his back, as if to throw a behind-the-back pass to a cutting teammate, except that his right hand has spun its Spiderman webs and hold onto the ball instead. Rondo’s opponents know his tendency to make this move, how he can deceive with his most common improvisation, but almost always fall victim nonetheless, lunging the wrong way as Rondo waltzes by for a layup.
This isn’t just Rondo’s signature move; it’s also his most impressive trait, the ability to excel at what he does best despite opponents’ constant attempts to expose his most transparent weaknesses. No other NBA All-Star has a more pronounced flaw than Rondo’s jump shot. It limits what he can accomplish. It allows defenders to know exactly what he intends to do. It shapes the way opponents defend him, with the knowledge that he only shoots if he sees no other option. That he still manages to contribute to so many wins is like a Major League pitcher excelling with only one pitch. Think Mariano Rivera. The best closer in history, Rivera primarily throws just one pitch, the cut fastball. The batter knows exactly what’s coming. So does the manager, so do the announcers, so does every fan in the stadium. But because Rivera’s one pitch is so devastating, because he can cold-heartedly command his cut fastball to shatter bats and to break approximately six inches over the final ten feet it travels, that one pitch is all he needs.
In comparing Rondo to baseball’s Greatest Closer Ever, I’m not calling him the most dominant point guard in NBA history—hell, I know calling him the current best point guard would be ignorant and very wrong. Instead, I’m pointing out how impressive it is that Rondo still gets outs with the cut fastball even when the whole park knows it’s coming. Without his compensation in other areas, Rondo’s Achilles heel jump shot would cripple him—he can only thrive by sharpening all his other skills. To succeed despite his painfully obvious limitations, Rondo needs to operate brilliantly in other aspects of the game; he needs the ability to dart through the paint with the quickness of a hummingbird’s wings; to makes passes with both hands, from any angle; to see the court three moves in advance of his opponents; to make a basketball do what he commands it to; to know what his teammates are doing at all times; and to possess a more extensive basketball IQ than any other player Doc Rivers has coached.
Perhaps Rondo’s greatest strength is his ability to thrive in randomness. Some players need a set offense to free them for looks. Think Richard Hamilton, whose most important assets—his ability to score off screens, to make midrange jumpers, and the endurance to run for 48 straight minutes—make offensive execution crucial to his game. If NBA players played pickup games with no coaches, it would be difficult to see Hamilton standing out, even if he were still in his prime. Isolations are hardly Hamilton’s strong suit. Rather, his game flourishes in half-court conditions, when a coach calls out a set and Hamilton runs around three or four screens to lose his defender for at least a split second. In contrast, Rondo thrives where Hamilton does not, in the fleeting moments where the game transitions from one phase of the game to another (from defense to offense or rebounding to offense, or vice versa), during the times when neither offense nor defense is fully set.
If a defense is not set, it is unprepared to take away Rondo’s best assets. In these moments he can make his own rules; in a land where his broken jump shot no longer matters, a land where his strengths expand while his deficiencies go into hiding, Rondo can use his seemingly endless creativity. In the open court, Rondo’s quickness becomes more important than ever. He has more lanes to utilize his vision. He sees the play unfolding one step before his opponent does, and before you know it he’s into the lane, and Ray Allen’s open for three, and the greatest three-point shooter in NBA history has drained another shot, and you can chalk up another assist for Rondo. He succeeds in chaotic circumstances with nobody set and all hell breaking loose, and he succeeds in these situations because even then, even when he draws up moves on the run as if he carries a portable easel onto the court, every move he makes is calculated and purposeful.
Set or not, a defense will have troubles with Rondo’s quickness. He says he doesn’t care about his own defender—paying attention to the defense’s first layer would only waste Rondo’s time, because he can get past the initial defender whenever he wants. So when he decides the best way to attack a defense, he looks past the first defender, to the help defenders, to the other four players on the court. If Kevin Garnett’s defender is playing too far away from Garnett, Rondo might penetrate in that man’s direction. Once the defender takes another step toward Rondo, one more step away from Garnett, Rondo’s job has almost been completed. All he does after that is deliver a pass to Garnett, who now has a wide open look. Rondo’s quickness, in partnership with his vision, has allowed him to create a shot for his teammate.
The union of Rondo’s most valuable skills—the way they mesh so well together—is what makes him so difficult to stop despite his blatant deficiencies. He can control the ball because of his hands, he can control the defender because of his feet, and he can control the game because of his mind. When he starts his go-to move, he has already utilized his quickness to jet into the paint. Then he cuffs the ball, and it almost disappears in the giant sea that is his right hand, and because he knows the defender respects his passing ability, he knows a fake pass will afford him enough time to scoop home a layup. He uses all his talents, and he uses them in unison, like a chain reaction in which one step leads directly to the next, which leads directly to the next.
Rondo is swift and creative, talented and resourceful, daring and intelligent, and even if you know he loves the fake around-the-back pass, the time you don’t fall for the fake will be the time he bounces the ball to his teammate for an easy deuce. He is at times maddeningly inconsistent, but alternately brilliant enough to make you forget any time he loafed through a regular season game. He is flawed and imperfect, stubborn and emotional, argumentative and occasionally careless, but he is still the Celtics’ best hope for the future, still the Celtics’ best hope for next season. He is a tapestry of confusion, a blanket of contradictions, and if you think about him for long enough, Rajon Rondo even starts to make sense.
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