The scenario will face the Celtics at some point in the future, whether it comes after this season or in another year or two. Rajon Rondo will ride solo one day, or, even if Danny Ainge makes a high-profile free agent signing or two, Boston’s creative point guard will ride without three surefire Hall of Famers by his side.
Despite Rondo’s best efforts to quiet any doubts — he leads the NBA in assists and hasn’t notched fewer than 10 assists in a game for more than a month — haters will point out how much tougher his job will become once Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce move on. Mike D’Antoni contributed one of the more snarky quotes about Rondo’s future, wondering directly how Rondo would do in Minnesota, or indirectly, how he would perform surrounded by a bunch of scrubs. (Keep in mind: When D’Antoni chimed in with his two cents, Ricky Rubio still played basketball in Spain and Kevin Love had not yet morphed into Moses Malone’s white grandson with three-point range.) Pushing aside any “D’ANTONI’S A REAL DICK. HOW THE HELL COULD HE SAY THAT ABOUT MY FAVORITE POINT GUARD?!?!?” sentiment, the former Knick coach’s message is one that sensibly holds some weight: Rondo’s life will change when his passes are no longer intended for three of the greatest basketball players born in the 1970s.
Sunday night marked the first time Rondo played a game without any of the Big Three since April 14, 2010. Granted, the competition wasn’t championship caliber — the Bobcats’ putrid stench, after all, sparked questions about whether they could defeat the Kentucky Wildcats — but Rondo played 43 minutes and finished with a line of 20 points, 16 assists and six rebounds on 8 of 17 shooting. Rondo’s performance echoed so many other this season: He found open teammates in rhythm, occasionally threw confounding turnovers, attacked the rim when A) he saw an opening and B) he felt his team needed him to explore that opening, and chased down a few rebounds with quick bursts of frenetic energy.
If you were stuck on wondering how Rondo will look when the Big Three depart, you missed that the Celtics have unearthed a formula to maximize Rondo’s potential during the past month or more. It’s not an accident that Rondo’s assists streak started after Chris Wilcox and Jermaine O’Neal went down for the season. By starting two big men who space the floor (and bringing another big man with range, Greg Stiemsma, off the bench) the Celtics have “inverted” the floor, using their big men as shooters, effectively giving Rondo and his fellow jumper-opposed running mate Avery Bradley more freedom to enter the paint. The results were especially glaring during an April 1 meeting with the Miami Heat, when Rondo found his way into the paint whenever he pleased, Boston’s bigs made several open jump shots and Bradley converted approximately 3,527 successful off-ball dashes to the hoop. The spacing made Rondo and Bradley’s maneuvering easier, and their talents (Rondo’s speed, ball-handling and ability to penetrate; Bradley’s intelligent cuts) helped kill Miami.
Paradoxically, the way to maximize Rondo’s ability might actually hinder Boston’s offensive efficiency. By surrounding Rondo with centers who mostly stay on the perimeter and a shooting guard (recent surge notwithstanding) not known for his perimeter shot, the Celtics struggle to earn free throws (28th in the league at free throw attempts), don’t hit many three-pointers (23rd in the league in makes, even with Ray Allen and Paul Pierce) and hardly ever grab an offensive rebound (the Celtics are last in the NBA in offensive rebounding percentage and offensive rebounds per game). The result is an offense tied for 25th in offensive efficiency, or in other words, better only than Cleveland, Detroit, Washington and Charlotte. This Celtics team wins with defense, not offense.
We obviously can’t blame Rondo for the notion that his teammates don’t draw many fouls, crash the glass or drill many three-pointers. We can’t blame him for Boston’s offensive ineptitude — hell, the Celtics are eight points worse per 100 possessions when Rondo is not in the game. He makes them better. We know that. But it’s still slightly concerning that Rondo’s obscene string of double-digit assist games has not boosted Boston’s offensive efficiency numbers even a little.
This team is now built for Rondo to succeed. That’s not necessarily a good thing, even if we know he can also adapt to situations that aren’t ideal for his game.