Last week the Celtics lost at Toronto, nearly causing Doc Rivers to have an ulcer or kill Chris Wilcox and JaJuan Johnson with his bare hands. Nobody on the Celtics played well that night and they fell collectively, 86-74. I repeat that nobody played well, for emphasis, but Jose Calderon especially outplayed Rajon Rondo, pushing internet commenters everywhere to grab their pitchforks and riot against Rondo’s apparent nonchalance. Rondo’s teammates were mostly hidden from scorn because all the fiery bows were sent by arrow in Rondo’s direction.
Yesterday as the Celtics lost to the Pistons, 98-88, Rondo exhibited the hunger and desire to win, to put his team on his back when it needed him the most, which all those angry commenters had been searching for while scorching down cities and flipping over cars. Rondo set a career high with 35 points, added six assists, five rebounds and four steals, shot 15-27 from the field, and suffered only two turnovers. He was Boston’s knight in shining armor, the attacking point guard who almost saved the god-forsaken day. But still — though Ray Allen and Paul Pierce mostly stood idly in the corner, deciding not to cut or make their presences known in any way — Rondo heard some backlash.
Even Doc Rivers seemed to hint that perhaps Rondo shot too often.
“[Paul Pierce] wasn’t really involved and you’ve got to get your scorers involved early,” Rivers said, and the onus to get Pierce involved surely falls onto Rondo’s shoulders.
“Offensively, I didn’t like the way we played the whole night – wasn’t a lot of movement,’’ Rivers added. “I like Rondo being aggressive but, on the other hand, we didn’t get a lot of ball movement.
Yet after re-watching every shot Boston took yesterday on Synergy Sports, it was painfully obvious that Rondo and Chris Wilcox were the only energetic Celtics, and everyone else was just going through the motions. There’s no pass beautiful enough to make Paul Pierce open when he is standing stagnant 25 feet from the hoop, no pass magical enough to assist Ray Allen when he is jogging around the perimeter with no sharp cuts, no pass strong enough to transport Jermaine O’Neal back to 1999.
There was just one difference between Boston’s performance in Toronto and its performance against Detroit, one force that kept Boston from being blown out by the Pistons the same way they were by the Raptors: an active Rajon Rondo, who did his best to keep Boston in the latter game despite a set of teammates that seemed uninterested and/or extremely dizzy.
What do Celtics fans want from Rondo? Should he grab Allen and Pierce by the ear and physically force them to score 20 points apiece? Should he pick Jermaine O’Neal up by the shorts and thrust him further into the air so O’Neal can actually rebound the basketball? Should he heal Kevin Garnett and Brandon Bass like a black Mr. Miyagi? Should he pass to teammates who aren’t working to get themselves open when he’s having all kinds of success scoring by himself? What else must Rondo do on top of what he’s accomplished the past two games?
He’s scored 67 points while adding 21 assists and 15 rebounds during his past two outings, shooting 53 percent from the field, yet somehow Rajon Rondo still managed to draw a measure of criticism last night. Comcast sideline reporter Kyle Draper tweeted that Rondo needed to do a better job getting his teammates involved. Rivers indirectly mentioned Rondo as a cause for Boston’s poor ball movement. Rich Levine, whose writing and opinions I admire, wrote, “Not that we can complain about 35 points, but at the same time, don’t you understand why Ray Allen and Paul Pierce had such a hard time getting into the flow? I mean, you play with a guy for four-plus years, and come to know and rely on him as the consummate point guard, and then he wakes up one morning and decides to be Karl Malone? What the hell are you supposed to do with that?”
Yet Rondo was just trying to take advantage of a Detroit defense designed to turn him into a scorer. He went to the basket and the Pistons were hesitant to help. He worked his way into the post repeatedly and the Pistons left him alone with a smaller defender on his back, at his mercy. Detroit coach Lawrence Frank (who’s quite familiar with Rondo after being Boston’s lead assistant last season) clearly chose to defend everyone else while daring Rondo to shoot, and Rondo simply took what the defense gave him.
If you trust Paul Pierce, Rondo’s attacking style was even highlighted in Boston’s game plan, and his teammates hardly minded that he took so many shots.
“We played a lot of pick-and-roll,” said Pierce. “Rondo got the hot hand and took the shots that were there when they sagged off of him, when the shots were there he took them. We went to him in the post a lot and it caused a lot of isolation. That was the game plan.”
Nobody should be asking Rondo to apologize for shooting too much, not when the situation dictates that he must, not when his teammates seem stuck in a puddle of chewing gum and Boston’s only hope is riding Rondo to victory. If his teammates are open, Rondo will find them, as he always does. And when his teammates are having a little difficulty, it’s on Rondo to morph into a scorer and attempt to lift the Celtics to triumph.
He did that admirably last night, and we should cheer his efforts. If everyone else wearing green had played with Rondo’s passion and sharp edge, the Celtics would have won handily and we would all be cheering the appearance of this new, aggressive hit man who showed up spraying ammunition the last two games, with a steely focus in his eyes, a bounce in his step and confidence sprouting from his shooting stroke.