Rajon Rondo has not looked like his extraordinary self over the past two weeks. He’s still shaking off rust, and still needs time to familiarize himself with what he physically can and cannot do on the court. He must also grow accustomed to his (mostly) new teammates’ tendencies
It’s a process with no shortcuts. In the meantime all Rondo can do is make mistakes, throw his brain into auto-pilot and let his instinctual brilliance occasionally take over, and play. Play and play and play and play.
After Boston was decapitated by the Knicks on Tuesday night, Rondo told reporters as much. His timing is off, he’s turning it over too much (about once per every two assists). But timing will eventually return, and there’ve already been a few remarkable moments to help remind us just how easy Rondo can create a shot for someone else. It’s what the Celtics have been missing all year long. Here’s one play that best personifies all he can accomplish, essentially by himself.
Rondo creates action like this in his sleep. He’s fantastic at carving microscopic passing lanes with dribble penetration, and in space he’s as hard a cover as anybody who’s ever played the game.
The main struggles have instead come in areas that were never considered strengths in the first place. He isn’t shooting the ball well at all, even though he’s looking for his own shot quite a bit (a good thing). Through six games Rondo is averaging 6.7 points with an atrocious 27.9/23.1/50.0 shooting split. His PER is 4.9 and his usage rate is 25.9. The Celtics have been outscored by 15.3 points per 100 possessions when Rondo plays and “only” 6.9 when he sits. His 68.3 touches per game lead the team, and his responsibilities will only get higher.
His shooting percentage in the restricted area is 19% below league average (seriously), but instead of settling Rondo leads the Celtics in drives per game—6.0, according to SportVU. Some of these drives have come out of side pick-and-rolls involving Jeff Green, plays that spring Rondo forward against defenders placed in a situation they aren’t used to. Here’s an example from Sunday’s contest against the Nets.
Most/all of his numbers are awful, but that was pretty much to be expected. Rondo was thrown into the middle of an NBA season with no training camp or preseason. Basketball is being played in hyper speed right now, and (most) opposing teams are comfortable running their offense and rotating effectively on the other end. The competition is tough. Players know their roles now. That’s what Rondo’s up against, on a team that needs him to be great immediately. His shot chart, then, should not come as a surprise. It also shouldn’t be taken too seriously, given how few attempts he’s had in each area.
Offense hasn’t been the happiest place for Rondo, but it’s on the other end where he’s looked even less prepared for NBA-level pace. Despite Avery Bradley’s absence with a badly sprained ankle, Rondo still isn’t covering opposing point guards. Against the Oklahoma City Thunder Brad Stevens hid him on Thabo Sefolosha, while Pablo Prigioni was his guy two nights ago against the New York Knicks. The latter matchup was harder than it needed to be.
Wait. There’s more.
Rondo’s defensive awareness wasn’t perfect before his injury; too often he would coast as a free safety, jumping passing lanes with much more focus on whoever had the ball than his own man. (Ironically, Rondo ended the possession above by stealing a pass from Shumpert that was intended for Prigioni.) With no rim protectors (ie no Kevin Garnett) and teammates who lack general wherewithal to make consistent defensive rotations, the Celtics need Rondo to be fundamental and sound. His footwork has been solid—funneling opposing ball-handlers into Boston’s designed pick-and-roll coverage—but he’s yet to show any typical aggressiveness. He has three personal fouls in 146 minutes. That sounds like a good thing, but those numbers are way below Rondo’s average. Look for him to be a bit more physical in the weeks ahead.
Rondo only has two weeks of action under his belt, and every game’s been played under a strict minute restriction. He still isn’t healthy enough to play on the second night of back to backs. Rondo will improve on both ends for no better reason than right now he can’t play any worse.
Michael Pina writes for CelticsHub, Red94, The Classical, Bleacher Report, Sports On Earth, and Boston Magazine. Follow him here.