He can still pass by his primary defender like the defender’s nothing but a turnstile, but through two games this season Rajon Rondo doesn’t have the same objectives in mind once he leaves that first defender in his rearview. Rondo’s still a pass-first point guard at heart, one averaging 12.5 assists per game so far, but there’s also another option that has been added to Rondo’s repertoire, at least on a more consistent basis: get to the rim, even if the second line of defense stands in his way.
Through two games, Rondo has attempted 23 free throws and scored 53 points. Great numbers, of course, but without context it’s difficult to understand exactly what those numbers mean. Once you realize that Rondo never scored more than 44 points in a two-game span last season and didn’t attempt double-figure free throws once all last year (something he’s accomplished in each of Boston’s first two games), it’s easier to understand that we are quite possibly observing the next step in Rondo’s evolution.
The sample size is admittedly small, but Rondo is breaking down barriers he never approached last year, when passivity and “giving up open layups in favor of hitting a teammate for a jumper” often reigned supreme in Rondo’s arsenal. This season, considering that his star teammates are a year older and Boston’s bench consists of a number of reliable role players but nobody (with the possible exception of Brandon Bass) who can create his own shot on a consistent basis, the Celtics need Rondo to be more aggressive at all times. That doesn’t necessarily mean shooting 20 shots per game or morphing into Allen Iverson 2.0, but the Celtics certainly need Rondo to shoulder more of an offensive burden than last season.
So far, so good on that front, although the Celtics have staggered to an 0-2 record, and the defense that formerly had the best security system in the game has left its front door wide open for each of the first two games. (Except when the Celtics switched to a 2-3 zone, which is a topic for another post entirely). Very little blame for the losses can be pinned on Rondo, even though his seven turnovers last night certainly hurt Boston’s cause and one particularly egregious decision in the waning minutes forfeited Boston’s one second-half opportunity to pull even. Complaining about turnovers is necessary — hold on to the ball please, folks — but it’s also picking nits, since Rondo has demonstrated through two games that he’s Boston’s only player (at least while Pierce is out) who can consistently turn water into wine (or, in basketball terms, turn a defensive advantage into an offensive bucket). Rondo has often played the role of one-man offense, becoming so crucial to Boston’s success that it might be appropriate to start calling him Peyton Manning.
The scary thing, at least for opponents, is that Rondo can still play with more consistent aggression. He registered 22 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds last night, and yet I occasionally found myself wanting to prod Rondo into action like a jockey whipping his horse. There are times Rondo is still willing to take a backseat to the action, which I suppose is necessary for a point guard who wants to keep everybody involved, but might also be harmful to this particular Boston team. Whether taking an occasional backseat is necessary or not, every time Rondo begins to slip into his former passivity, I find myself begging the television set for the return of Peyton Manning Rondo.
Perhaps it’s greedy of me to expect even more consistent aggression from Rondo after just two regular season games when he demonstrated the willingness to do so, but that’s the riddle with rooting for Rondo: We don’t know exactly what he can accomplish, we don’t know exactly what he can add to his game, but every time he does manage to take a leap forward, none of us are surprised and it always seems like there’s another leap he can take. Rondo’s recent scoring aggression has been surprising and it has been a revelation. But there’s a feeling he can provide even more once he becomes accustomed to the mentality it takes to put the Celtics on his back and carry them to his level night in and night out.
For his next trick, Rondo must learn to stop leaving his aggression in the third quarter. For the second straight game, Rondo failed to earn a trip to the free throw line during the final period, and his three shots in the fourth quarter against the Heat all came from outside the paint.
It feels harsh to expect more from Rondo, without whom the Celtics would have been blown out in both games. But the Celtics could use Peyton Manning Rondo at all times. It’s easy to see that Rondo is quite capable of scoring points, and he is starting to look more comfortable in that role. So comfortable, in fact, that it’s not difficult to envision a time in the near future when Rondo provides even more than he has to this point.