- Jackie MacMullan, ESPN Senior Writer
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NEW ORLEANS -- The smile came easily on Saturday night. That's progress, Rajon Rondo figures.
The grin was in response to a query regarding his modest success in knocking down some open jumpers against the New Orleans Hornets.
"That was good," he said. "We needed it. I needed it."
It was of little consequence to Rondo that when the Boston Celtics finally stopped scuffling and ripped off a 21-6 run that catapulted them to an 89-85 win over New Orleans, he was on the bench, nursing a pinky injury that caused his hand to go numb.
Delonte West shimmered in his place, moving the ball, creating energy and coaxing the Celtics into something they have forgotten how to do lately: scoring buckets.
When Boston's offense goes stagnant, all eyes settle on Rondo, the gifted, unique talent who told anyone who would listen a year ago that he was the best point guard in the league. That's how it works with him. Why wait for someone else to apply the pressure? Why not heap it on himself before they have the chance?
"That's kind of how I operate," he conceded. "It motivates me, keeps me accountable."
Rondo's struggles have affected him, both on and off the basketball court. The shooting woes were, honestly, the least of it. His role on this team is to distribute, to agitate, to create the kind of havoc that introduced him into the conversation regarding elite point guards in the first place.
When Rondo plays with verve, with commitment, with passion, the Celtics flourish. When he plays with a vacant stare, a hesitant mindset, an indifferent defensive approach, his team has no chance.
"When I don't play well, we seem to lose more," he said. "Now I'm sure that's also partly true when it comes to KG, Paul, Ray. But the ball is in my hands so much, and I've seen what happens when I spark the team.
"It's not about making shots. It's getting those guys shots, it's grabbing a rebound, it's making a defensive play."
It's about being the catalyst that does something every single game that separates him. And, over the past couple of weeks, Rondo simply hasn't distinguished himself in that manner.
There has been a healthy amount of debate over the physical status of Rondo, with conflicting views within his own camp. Doc Rivers, an old-school coach who expects his veterans (yes, Rondo qualifies now) to play through the usual maladies that afflict players this time of year, declared unequivocally that his point guard wasn't injured. And yet, KG reiterated after the win over the Hornets that Rondo is "hurting more than he's letting on."
"Danny thinks I'm hurt too, right?" Rondo said.
Yes, Celtics hoops honcho Danny Ainge does. He, like the rest of us, has wondered about the ankles, the plantar fascia injury, the possibility of fatigue or "dead legs."
The intrigue continues.
This much we know: Rondo has been taping his right pinky for the past "two weeks," an injury that he aggravated against New Orleans.
"It's been jammed," Rondo confirmed, "but it felt like it broke a bit [this time]."
That explains why he checked out at 7:12 of the third quarter and didn't return until there was 6:12 left in the game. In his absence, the Celtics erased a 58-49 deficit and were winning by three when he returned.
The ability to afford Rondo large blocks of rest is a blessing, both for his health and his psyche. Sometimes, when things go bad, it helps to sit and reflect for a minute. It was a luxury that didn't exist for Rondo earlier in the season. It was why he bugged Ainge to bring in Carlos Arroyo. And it is why West will be a critical piece to Boston's postseason chances.
"I don't mind sitting when we're winning," Rondo said, smiling again.
When he returned to the game, he refused to let trainer Eddie Lacerte tape his finger. He had knocked down 4 of 8 jumpers, a significant feat in light of his recent shooting woes.
"I said at halftime, 'Rondo's back,"' Rivers said.
One game isn't enough for the point guard to declare himself whole again. The slump has been taxing. He hasn't felt himself for a while.
"It's a mix and match of things," he said slowly. "I haven't been playing well. Aches and pains. And we had the trade with Perk [Kendrick Perkins].
"He's a guy I spent a lot of time with. I'm not saying that's why I'm playing bad. You just appreciate somebody more when they're gone.
"We were best friends. We're talking more now than we did when he was here. It's been tough. I know other guys have been through it, but I haven't.
"We went through everything together, right from the beginning. I missed the USA basketball camp so I could be at his wedding.
"When we were on the road, there was never any question we'd be hanging out together. It was 'What are we going to do tonight?' or 'Let's go here and there.' So now it's a little different.
"I'm not saying I'm no lost puppy. He didn't die or anything. But he's a good person."
Perk isn't coming back -- but Rondo is. His shot is on the mend. The feeling is back in his hand. He's convinced he is almost on the other side of one of those dark periods that every NBA veteran encounters in his career, when nothing seems to go right.
"I think it's been good for him," Rivers said, "to go through those struggles."
Rondo logged but 28 minutes against New Orleans and his nemesis Chris Paul, who experienced his own share of angst in this game.
Making shots for Rondo was "a relief." Winning the game was "a step forward." He admitted to frustration, but never any doubt during this slump.
"No doubt at all," Rondo said. "I've got too many people behind me for that. I don't know what's been said. I haven't read the papers, watched the TV or any of that. I don't need to hear it.
"No one has to tell me what to do. I'm pretty good at doing that on my own."
Jackie MacMullan, who has spent nearly 20 years as a beat writer and columnist in Boston, is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.
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