Rajon Rondo returned to the Celtics lineup last night, with neither a whimper nor a bang, but something in-between.
At least that’s how it looks at first glance.
As Brendan noted in his visually impressive recap, Rondo looked rusty last night. He hit only two shots (for 4 total points) and his 8 assists were undercut by 5 turnovers, many of them of a grievous nature. But his mere presence on the court was enough to kick-start the Celtics offense.
Look at the Boston assist totals from the last seven games, all of which Rondo watched from the bench:
16 (NO), 18 (DET), 18 (IND), 16 (ORL), 19 (PHI), 23 (IND), 28 (ATL)
The Celtics average 24.7 assists per game this season, tops in the league. The worst team in the league, Milwaukee, averages 17.4.
Last night in Toronto, the Celtics tallied 30 assists.
Now, you could argue this is a reaction to the hero-ball that plagued the Celtics against New Orleans, but Doc Rivers has been preaching ball movement since the Gerald Green-era. You could make a case the assist numbers were inflated by the Raptors’ weak defense. You could say any number of things, but the fact remains:
In a single game, the Celtics’ assist total went from a worst-in-the-league figure to a best-in-the-league figure. Without Kevin Garnett.
Rondo means that much to the Celtics.
The same way Garnett’s attitude and approach defines the Celtics’ defensive culture, Rondo’s lust for passing and comprehensive application of the Celtics’ playbook are infectious.
For all his impressive court vision and high-wire passes, Rondo’s magic is often found in the small details, in his precision. He almost always gets the ball to, say, Ray Allen right in stride, so Allen can go up for a jumper in rhythm or put it on the deck without losing the step he has on his defender. That can mean the difference between an open 12-foot leaner in the lane for 2 points and Allen being bottled up by his defender and having to pull the ball back out.
This is what Boston has been missing for the last two weeks.
Which is why I’m feeling strange for wishing he hadn’t played.
Should Rondo even be on the court this week?
It may seem a silly question to ask, having just raved over his transformative effect on the offense. Plus, most of us believe that players should fight through injuries and lace ’em up whenever they’re capable of doing so.
Especially when their teams are struggling. And even if their ankles are a bit wonky.
CSNNE’s Jessica Camerato got this quote from Rondo a few days ago:
“I’m taking a lot of advice from a lot of different people and they’re pretty much telling me the same thing,” he said. “They played this game – Danny (Ainge), Kevin (Garnett) – and (Celtics trainer) Ed Lacerte has been here for 20 years so he knows what he’s talking about. So I just try to take advice from people who are telling me if you can’t do certain things, you shouldn’t play.
“It still hasn’t clicked with me, but I just listen to people who say I can’t play. It’s just going to be one of those days I just get up and I play. It’s not going to be when I’m back to 100% ready to play. It’s just whenever I feel like I can go and I have no restrictions.”
Rondo did not look like a player with no restrictions last night.
He was periodically behind on defense and less aggressive on offense than usual. In the second quarter, Rondo got Raptors’ rookie power forward Ed Davis on a mismatch with 8 seconds left on the shot clock. Now, Davis is a promising player but has no chance of stopping an unrestricted Rondo off-the-dribble. It was a perfect opportunity for #9 to clear out the C’s bigs and blow by Davis for a finish at the rim or to force a defensive rotation and create an easy shot for a teammate.
Rondo did neither. He swung the ball to Paul Pierce on the weak side instead.
Is that meaningful or irrelevant?
Assuming Rondo’s ankle hasn’t ballooned overnight, probably the latter.
The Celtics have four more games in the next six days, including a big game against Tony Parker and the Spurs, and two back-to-backs, the latter of which has Derrick Rose lying in wait. Rondo will likely play in all of them, and with great intensity against those two star guards. And he’ll probably get better and better along the way.
But if his ankle is re-injured, as it almost was tonight (see the photo towards the top of the recap), we’ll have plenty of questions about the wisdom of sending Rondo back out there for this grueling stretch, before he was closer to 100%.