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March 2nd, 2009

Rajon Rondo: The Ball's In His Hands

 

Forget about the Big Three. The Celtics' chances of gaining home court advantage in the East lie in the enormous mitts of Rajon Rondo, their mule-headed point guard

Ian Thomsen

 

STUBBORNNESS CAN be a flaw for Rajon Rondo, but only on those occasions when it's not a strength. The Boston Celtics point guard is so mule-headed that he refused to be drawn into the debate over whether he deserved one of the All-Star invitations that went to Eastern Conference rivals Devin Harris, Jameer Nelson and Mo Williams. "I'll take a championship over All-Star any day," he said again and again. For Rondo has more important matters on his mind; with Kevin Garnett sidelined for the next two weeks with a strained right knee, Rondo will take on even more responsibility as Boston battles Williams's Cleveland Cavaliers for home court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs.

"You've got to have some stubbornness in you, that's what makes you great," says Celtics coach Doc Rivers, a former All-Star point guard himself. "But...."

But there are times when it is better to back off. Rondo has butted heads with every coach he has had over the last decade. "Freshman year I benched him 13 games for one reason or another," says Doug Bibby, Rondo's coach at Eastern High in Louisville, who today considers Rondo one of his closest friends. In his two years at Kentucky, Rondo got along with coach Tubby Smith the way Keith Olbermann does with Bill O'Reilly, though it turned out to be nothing personal: As an up-tempo player Rondo felt restrained by Smith's half-court style. Now the two have a close friendship based on mutual respect.

"Last year Rondo got mad, and he said, 'Why are you always on me?'" recalls Rivers. "And I said, 'Because you're not as good as you should be yet.' I told him, 'Until that day I'm not getting off you, and I'm not going anywhere.'"

To win any argument with Rondo, one must be equally obstinate. But then, disputes in the Celtics' locker room or huddle often lead to a more constructive understanding. "The more you argue about something, the more prepared you'll be because you'll say, 'Remember we talked about it the last game—that argument we got in?'" says Celtics shooting guard Ray Allen. Rondo, 23, has had to mesh with Allen, the 7-foot Garnett and swingman Paul Pierce, All-Stars who are at least eight years older than their slender playmaker. "I just think he worried about trying to match up with all of the hype that was surrounding us last year," Allen adds, "so he had to show that he was the tough guy. Like, I'm tough, I know what I'm doing here. Now this year I think he feels respected, and he doesn't feel like he needs to pump his fist and beat his chest. Now that we know what he does, we give him his due."

Rondo has never been intimidated by the Big Three, who earn a combined $61 million to the $1.3 million he makes in the third and final year of his rookie contract. At 6'1" and 171 pounds he is the smallest (and youngest) player in the rotation, and at week's end he was scoring only 11.5 points per game. Yet Rondo, who in a 20-point win over the Phoenix Suns on Sunday had a career-high 32 points and handed out 10 assists, has grown as important to the Celtics as any future Hall of Famer. Defensively he is a mini KG, especially in his ability to rebound (5.3 per game through Sunday, tying him with New Orleans Hornets All-Star Chris Paul for the league lead among point guards) and to ball hawk (an average of 2.0 steals, which Rondo routinely turns into layups or assists at the other end).

 

"We think he's the fastest player in the NBA," says Allen in lauding the indispensable energy that Rondo provides. His ability to beat any defender off the dribble creates havoc, whether he is getting open looks for teammates or finishing with reverse layups, floaters or his signature move—an upfake in which he teases shot blockers by showing the ball with one oversized hand before yanking it back like a yo-yo on a string.

At week's end Rondo was fourth in assists with 8.5 per game, and his assist-turnover ratio of 3.2 was better than every All-Star's except Paul's (3.6). By any measure Rondo has surpassed expectations as a poor-shooting college sophomore who plummeted to No. 21 in the 2006 draft. After starting the latter half of his rookie season for the 24-win Celtics, he was headstrong enough to believe he could quarterback the team to a title last season after the acquisitions of Garnett and Allen. "It's just my competitive side," Rondo says. "If I'm stubborn, I want to make sure I know what I'm talking about."

Yet for all of his strong opinions, Rondo is a good listener with large, stoic eyes that rarely reveal his feelings. Of all the strong personalities in the Celtics' locker room, his is among the least obtrusive. "When he first came into the league, he introduced himself to me," Hornets coach Byron Scott says with a laugh. "I said, 'I know who you are.'"

RONDO HAS controlled the ball in every sport he ever played. "I was a pitcher, and growing up I thought I was going to the NFL," says Rondo, who was a quarterback with a 55-yard arm before he chose to focus full time on basketball after his freshman year of high school. "[Playing QB] definitely translated to the basketball court, knowing where everyone has to be on assignment. Coming to the line you see different defenses, and you've got to audible quickly with the play clock going down."

Kentucky's walk-it-up pace exposed Rondo's weakness as a spot-up shooter. While he led the Wildcats in rebounds, steals and assists as a sophomore, he made only 68 of 119 free throws (57.2%) and 18 of 66 three-pointers (27.3%)—numbers that sent his stock plummeting and enabled Boston to steal him in a draft-night trade with the Suns. Even now as he prepares to shoot, Rondo looks like a waiter carrying a tray of food, with his large right palm flat above his right ear. Through Sunday he led all point guards in shooting (50.6%), though more than two thirds of his attempts had been layups and he was making just 30.3% of his threes. "He's not a great shooter, but he knows how to hide himself," says Portland Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan. "Avery Johnson wasn't a great shooter either, but he knew how to go behind that basket and put himself in position to hurt you if you double-teamed off him. If Rondo was knocking down his jump shot consistently, you'd be talking about an all-pro player."

 

Rondo is often compared with Tony Parker, another late-first-round pick, who guided the San Antonio Spurs to the 2003 championship even though he lacked a reliable jumper. Whereas Parker overhauled his technique and has developed into a long-range marksman, Rondo intends to change nothing. "I'm set in my ways," says Rondo, who believes his accuracy will improve with practice. "I don't feel like I have to settle for a jump shot, because I can get to the basket at will."

Both the Seattle Sonics and the Minnesota Timberwolves threatened to call off their blockbuster trades of Allen and Garnett, respectively, so badly did both want Rondo (before Celtics president Danny Ainge called their bluffs). Even so, his elder All-Star teammates were skeptical that a second-year point guard could help lead them to a championship. After roller-coastering through last year's playoff run—his spectacular title-clinching performance (21 points, eight assists and six steals) in Game 6 against the Los Angeles Lakers came after a combined 16 points and nine assists in the previous three games—Rondo is learning how to listen. He has become a more consistent source of energy by heeding Rivers's demands to push the ball across half court as well as pick it up full-court on defense. Heart-to-hearts with his more famous teammates have helped him understand where they like the ball.

Softening his stubborn side is all part of growing up in a championship environment, Rondo acknowledges. "I've learned to handle it a little bit better," he says. "Even though I think I'm right."

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