Rajon Rondo meets Knicks' challenge
NEW YORK -- The New York Knicks challenged Rajon Rondo all series long without saying a word, the gigantic gaps between the All-Star point guard and his defender speaking volumes. That should have been enough.
But at a time of year when most coaches remind their players to avoid even the slightest bit of talk that could be construed as bulletin-board material, Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni took a subtle and head-scratching swing at the one player his team had no answer for during their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series with the Boston Celtics.
Before Sunday's Game 4, D'Antoni wondered out loud if Rondo would be as successful with a lesser supporting cast. Yes, this is the same Rondo who was coming off a triple-double in which he handed out a Celtics postseason-record 20 assists in Friday's Game 3 triumph that put New York's back against the wall.
"I'd like to see him play in Minnesota and see how he does," D'Antoni said.
"Everybody's tied together and they have three Hall of Famers playing out there. Rondo is a very good basketball player -- really good. But if you look at their team and you have to say, 'What can we take away? What do we have to give them and play the odds?' You have to give him his shot and you have to try to close up the middle on him and that's kind of how we did it. We think that's the best way to go."
Whether D'Antoni's comments made their way to the Boston locker room is irrelevant (though it's hard to imagine they didn't land on someone's smart phone during the 90 minutes before tipoff). Rondo has been otherworldly at times in this series and didn't need any more motivation.
On Sunday, Rondo scored 21 points on 8-of-12 shooting with 12 assists as Boston swept the Knicks out of the postseason with a 101-89 triumph at Madison Square Garden.
Appearing before the media alongside captain Paul Pierce after the game, Rondo was asked about D'Antoni's comments. Pierce spoke up immediately saying he wasn't going to answer the question, suggesting Rondo had done so with his play. Tackling the question would justify the remarks.
Rondo simply shrugged and said, "Everybody's got an opinion."
True, but rarely is one voiced by the head coach of a playoff opponent in front of a media throng thirsty for a storyline during an otherwise snooze-worthy pregame session. Unless D'Antoni's plan was to try to get into Rondo's head, figuring that might be the one way to slow him, the comments were rather baffling. Regardless of whether that's truly what D'Antoni believes, it was an odd time to voice it.
After all, this was Rondo, the guy who aided Boston's late-game rally in Game 1 with what may have been the series' biggest play: An inbounds lob to Kevin Garnett that helped the Celtics claw back from three points down in the final minute.
In Game 2, Rondo poured in a career postseason-high 30 points, 22 of which came at the rim, absolutely dissecting the Knicks in transition.
Then came the triple-double, which wasn't your Garden variety triple-double (if such a thing exists). Rondo spent the night feeding Pierce and Ray Allen, who combined for 70 points while blistering the field (particularly beyond the 3-point arc).
Rondo also chipped in 15 points and 11 rebounds. According to Elias Sports Bureau, it was just the fifth triple-double by a visiting player at MSG during a postseason game, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (April 13, 1970), Dennis Johnson (May 6, 1988) and Michael Jordan twice (May 9, 1989 and June 2, 1993).
What's more, Elias noted that there had been nine triple-doubles over the last three playoffs seasons. Rondo is responsible for six of them, with the other three produced by LeBron James.
That puts Rondo in elite company, as the only other players with more career postseason triple-doubles are Magic Johnson (30), Jason Kidd (11), Larry Bird (11), Wilt Chamberlain (9) and Oscar Robertson (8). Few ever questioned whether those players could succeed on bad teams.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers admits it's a bit of a double-edged sword for Rondo, running with Hall of Fame company.
"You play with those guys, that's probably what you're going to get," Rivers said. "I don't think he would trade it. I think he enjoys playing with them. If there is a negative side, I guess that would be it. No matter how well you play, the question will be [how much the supporting cast helped]. Some day, that will be answered too. I've got a feeling he'll answer them all in the way he's answering them now."
The Knicks did their best to limit Rondo's ability to get to the rim Sunday. He responded by making 4-of-5 layups. They sat back and challenged him to shoot jumpers and he responded by making 5-of-7 jump shots.
After New York rallied from 23 down to make it a two-possession game, the Knicks were staring at a six-point deficit with less than five minutes to play. They sagged and again challenged Rondo, who stepped up and canned a 13-foot jumper with 4:48 to go to push the lead back to eight. Next trip down, he fed Garnett for a 16-foot jumper and a double-digit lead.
"When [Rondo] plays with that type of energy, we are almost unstoppable," Pierce said.
Glen Davis echoed those sentiments, pointing to Rondo's emerging jumper.
"That's huge for us, because guys are going to not respect Rondo as far as his jump-shot ability," Davis said. "But now when you go through a series and when you go through the playoffs and you see that, you can't just leave him wide open. You have to contest that. It's hard to deal with our team because Rondo is just so electric. He's just everywhere. He can make things happen from every aspect of the floor."
Does it surprise Davis that teams still challenge Rondo?
"Well, somebody's going to learn, you know?" he said. "Point blank."
The Knicks learned. Their coach learned. Maybe it's not the best idea to challenge the spunky 25-year-old point guard with a permanent chip on his shoulder.
All Rondo did this series was average 19 points while shooting 50 percent from the floor, and dish out 12 assists per game, which led to an average of 27.5 points per contest, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
"He's tough to guard and you've seen that all throughout this series," Celtics reserve Jeff Green said. "And when he's going strong, we go."
Ah yes, the now-familiar adage: "As goes Rondo, so go the Celtics." Mind you, that expression ignores all of the Big Three, but focuses on the player whom more and more observers are putting in their company as the "big four."
Players and coaches around the league are learning Boston's success is directly tied to the play of its point guard. And instead of wondering how good he'd be on another team, maybe coaches should spend their time trying to figure out how to slow him down.
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.