Commentary

SHAQ IN CLEVELAND? ARTEST IN LA? YEAH, YEAH TURNS OUT THE KEY TO THE SEASON WEARS CELTIC GREEN. CAN RAJON RONDO KEEP BOSTON FROM BLOWING UP?

Updated: July 10, 2012, 4:08 PM ET
By Ric Bucher

Shaq in Cleveland? Artest in LA? Yeah, yeah. Turns out, the key to the season wears Celtic green. Can Rajon Rondo keep Boston from blowing up?

The notion hit Rajon Rondo like aN UNSEEN back pick. He'd suffered accusations before, but knowing them to be false, he'd run past without bothering to argue or defend. After all, if they couldn't get his name right (RAH-zhan ), why should they be expected to get anything else?

How teammates felt about him, though, that was different. His fi rst sports memories are of pick-up games in East Louisville, his fi rst motivation the disappointment of the near-teens who had to pick 6-year-old Rajon in a package with older brother William. He'd outgrown all that; at least he thought he had. Then he sat in Doc Rivers' offi ce this past June, the gloom of a failed title defense hanging heavy, as the coach asked: "Do you think your teammates like playing with you?"

Rondo couldn't imagine any answer other than yes. Maybe teammates didn't like him, a stoic among extroverts, a kid who questioned damn near everything. But not like playing with him? Hadn't he started for a champion in his second season, with a pass-fi rst game criticized for not including enough shots? And last season, hadn't he out-dueled Rookie of the Year Derrick Rose in a tense, seven-game playoff and been voted second-team all-defense?

"I thought so," was all Rondo could muster.

Rivers didn't press. He knew the question would get Rondo thinking, analyzing. Because that's what he does. It's the secret to his success and, maybe, the reason behind Rivers' insinuation. No one is harder on Rondo than Rondo. And when the young playmaker rewound the season, he paused on a few sidelong glances and not-quite-heard whispers. Just like that, the playground ghosts were back. Rondo had chalked up the disappointing season to complacency after a title or capitulation following Kevin Garnett's knee injury. He never imagined that anyone would see him as the problem. "That," he says, "was like a stab in the back."

Off-season trade rumors exiling him to Memphis gave further voice to the ghosts. Even as GM Danny Ainge denied it on local airwaves, he managed to slip in that Rondo "had to grow up." Then the C's opened training camp without offering him a longterm deal, leaving the star to ponder his worth as a restricted free agent next summer.

Funny thing, though: As his value to the team seems depressed, he's being asked to do more for it. Before last season, skeptics couldn't see how the second-year point guard could keep three future Hall of Famers happy. Now, mercurial newcomers Rasheed Wallace and Marquis Daniels will demand attention, and a rehabilitated KG must be reintegrated. It would be tricky even if he weren't wondering who was and wasn't with him. Asked about it, Rondo's already rigid jaw tightens. Then: "We don't have to be best buddies to win a championship."

HIS TRAJECTORY, on paper, is the hoops equivalent of an indie fi lm that becomes a blockbuster. Picked 21st in 2006, Rondo played little as a rook before becoming a starter the following season, defying yearlong doubts to lead the Celtics to their 17th title. Last season, he shot better than 50% and logged fi ve triple-doubles, including three in the playoffs. Dunkin' Donuts, ubiquitous in Boston, is actively using Rondo, not KG or Paul Pierce or Ray Allen, to be its rep. Red Bull too. His Facebook fans-pushing 60,000-number almost twice that of 2008 Finals MVP and fellow career Celtic Pierce.

But while a hit with those who view him from afar, he has a harder time connecting eye-to-eye. At Kentucky, Rondo was rumored to be frustrated by coach Tubby Smith's ball-control system, and when he left after his sophomore year, it was with Coach's blessing. This summer, when he passed on a chance to work out with Team USA, people said it was because he took the late invite as a snub. (Rondo says he had committed to being in the wedding party of best bud and teammate Kendrick Perkins.) And only now is he promising to stop warming up with his laces untied, claiming he was unaware coaches saw it as disrespectful. Whatever the specifi c realities, his nonconformism can be seen as arrogance, disinterest or both. "He lets you interpret what you want," says brother William. "You want a nod or smile, but he gives you nothing."

That was fine with Rivers the day he sat down his point guard. "I didn't have that meeting for him to talk," the coach says. "He needed to hear about some things." Things like his late arrival to the fi rst game against the Magic in the conference semis, his body language and loss of focus, his speaking up at the wrong time-or not speaking up enough. Still, Rivers is very clear. "This isn't a Rondo issue, it's a young-player-chasing-a-contract, celebrityand- endorsements issue," he says, "What he can't forget is the basketball chase."

But if that's the only worry, there isn't one. This summer, Rondo made three visits to the Mark Price Shooting Lab outside Atlanta, going double sessions for several days to address the weak link in his arsenal, his jumper. As a bonus, a disdain for the weight room-he's afraid bulking up will slow him down-was pounded out of him by fi ghting through one too many Dwight Howard picks. He has also pledged to stop reaching for back-taps, trying to tip away the ball from dribblers from behind; the all-ornothing tactic too often leads to opposing points or a foul. Of course, the Celtics have wanted him to concentrate on these defi ciencies since he arrived in town. "If you say two plus two is four, he asks why," says William, who lives with Rajon. "Same on the court. He'll say, 'Yes, we ran that play this way and it worked, but who says we can't run it this way and get the same result?'"

If Doc lays a plan for a pick-and-roll D, Rondo thinks it's okay to challenge it. And he'll keep challenging until he likes the answer. "It's a point guard mentality," says Pierce. "They think they're smarter than everyone. Sometimes he outsmarts himself."

All of it sounds familiar to Doug Bibby, Rondo's Eastern High coach. Bibby says it took the freshman Rondo four days to pick up a gimmicky system that some seniors hadn't mastered after four years. But he well understands the double-edged sword that is Rondo's unshakable faith in knowing what has to be done-even if it's not what anyone else believes has to be done. "When he feels he sees something," says Bibby, the cousin of Hawks point guard Mike, "the situation can turn into a confrontation."

HE'S NEVER backed down, never shown weakness. Amber Rondo made sure of that. A divorced, single mother to William, Rajon and sister Dymon, Amber raised her kids in a development near downtown Louisville, College Court, where gunfi re is not uncommon. She always asked for the third shift at the factory so she could shuttle her kids to practice, sleeping in the back of the blue-and-white family van until it was time to return home for dinner, before heading to work. All three were star prep athletes, and all checked in with Amber during games, often before they did with their coach.

When the Rondos were young, there was never any guff from William about dragging Rajon, fi ve years his junior, wherever he went. Amber, though, couldn't order anyone to pass her scrawny kid the ball or stop them from picking on him. "There was no crying," William says. "He learned how to get it done. He got the suck-it-up mentality early." They wouldn't pass him the ball? He stole it. Block his shot? He ran by them. Knock him down? No tears, ever.

He became a master of control very early and today jokes about being OCD, obsessive-compulsive , but there's something to it. As a kid, his Christmas toys were barely unwrapped before he had them lined up on his bed. These days, he knows if someone has been sitting on the couch by the tilt of a pillow. His game-day ritual includes fi ve showers and a precise pretip schedule for brushing his teeth, putting on his socks, peeing and tucking a small jar of Carmex into a sock .

The obsessiveness shows most, though, after he commits some on-court blunder. "He doesn't want to be bothered, because he's processing what he did wrong," Bibby says. "By the time you rip him, he's fi gured it out." Problem is, in the NBA three plays have transpired during the processing, three plays during which Rondo is in his own penalty box and Boston is playing a man down. "You're playing mad," Rivers has told him more than once. "Get past mad. It's killing you, and that's killing us."

Before Game 1 of the Magic series, Rondo left his house outside Boston at his usual time, 5 p.m., for the 35-minute drive to the arena. Rolling his black velvet Bentley onto the highway, he hit a wall of unexpected traffi c. "At fi rst I'm thinking, I'm going to miss my routine," he says. "Then it was, I'm going to miss the team meeting." Doc was halfway through his pregame talk when Rondo arrived. His routine in shambles, so too was his fi rst half. He missed his fi rst six shots as the Magic built an 18-point halftime lead. Rivers lit into him at the break, and Rondo nearly fi nished with a triple-double. But the Celtics lost the game, homecourt advantage and, maybe, the series-all because Rondo was late.

It's been months since Rondo and Rivers talked about that game, months since Rondo was asked the question. But what Doc torched still smolders. Rondo needs 15 seconds to fi nd the words for how the question made him feel. "Wasn't good," he says. What he won't say is that he loves being a Celtic, but his house speaks for him. In the Boston suburb of Lincoln, his dream house-No. 9, of course-sits at the end of a narrow and winding quarter-mile road that climbs through a thick hillside grove. Inside, there's a three-shot montage of his daughter Ryelle, but beyond that, Celtic Pride is the predominant decor. A painting of the 2008 title celebration hangs on the dining-room side of a dual-facing fi replace. The other side is "the championship room." An enormous photo of the team standing in front of the Roman Coliseum hangs above the mantel. The inscription reads "Ubuntu: A Person Is a Person Because of Other People." There's a title banner and a display case containing his ring. Photos of Rondo-driving past Kobe, mugging with teammates, staring from the pages of a magazine-all reveal the same fl at gaze. He's wearing it now, sitting in one of four leather chairs facing the fi replace. "If I part with the Celtics, they'll realize what they passed on," he says. "A team that wants me, that's where I want to be." His words echo off the green shamrocks.

THE CELTICS' fi rst exhibition game of 2009 is in tiny Hidalgo, Texas, a stone's throw from the Rio Grande. Rondo is close to awful with four turnovers, which includes one in the backcourt to a Rockets double-team in the fi rst quarter. Rondo sinks into himself, trudging to the last seat on the bench as the team huddles without him.

But Rivers praises how he handled the adversity and, where Rondo once might've replayed each mistake in the locker room , tonight he's perched on the training table, an arm's length from Garnett. Pierce and Allen complete the loose circle. Everyone is leaning back, laughing and joking. Everyone except Rondo. He's leaning forward, all in, the joy of being part of this exclusive club leaking out in the form of a rare smile, not a ghost to be seen.

Got ideas, gripes, something nice to say? E-mail the writer at ric.bucher@espnthemag.com.

HMMM WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU MIX THESE TOGETHER?

Every new campaign brings a chance for teams to form a new identity-a new molecular structure, if you will. Based on our (limited) knowledge of chemistry, we share our thoughts on the makeup of these new elements, which are sure to be tested in the laboratory otherwise known as the 82-game NBA season.

Bottle it

where are the goggles?

run for cover!

HORNETS

Cp3 - Tc6 + Eo50 = Riskybiznicide

Chris Paul can't picture what his Hornets will look like. "We might not know for a while," he says. What he does know is that the team traded his pal, Tyson Chandler. For two seasons, their connection made them NBA leaders in alley-oops, which they could execute without eye contact. In Chandler's place? Emeka Okafor, a guy who still hasn't fixed on a route to the arena. "I rely on my GPS to get everywhere," he says. Paul is lost too. But he can lament what's gone or shake his abrasive on-court personality to help his new 'mate fit in. Okafor won't finish like Chandler, but he'll knock down 15-footers off pick-and-pops and work with his back to the basket. That, at least, will let them get that eye contact thing going.

CHRIS PAUL

JAZZ

Dw 8 + Pm 24 / Cb 5 = Limbonese

The Jazz coughed up $32 million to keep Paul Millsap-32 mil for a second power forward. So now they're paying the luxury tax and trying to trade their All-Star 4, Carlos Boozer. Led by Deron Williams, the Jazz can win in a stable environment. What exists currently in Utah, though, is anything but. Boozer, for his part, is ready to go. There was interest in him this summer despite his $12.7 million tag, but nothing happened because suitors wanted assurances that he'd re-sign when his deal expired. Two big-money guys playing one spot is tough enough. When one is halfway out the door, that's trouble.

DERON WILLIAMS

MAGIC

Dh12 + Vc15 + Jn14 = Supervindicate

Is VC the perimeter equivalent of KG? Like the Big Ticket pre-Boston, Carter's crunch-time chops have long been debated. In Minnesota, Garnett was thought unselfi sh to a fault, incapable of carrying a team to a title. Well, look what happened once he played with top-tier guys. Is the same metamorphosis in store in Orlando? "Life is going to be a lot easier," Carter says. "With so many guys demanding attention, it's like on the playground where no one plays defense." Vince has an off-season home in Orlando, a bowling partner in Jameer Nelson and an ongoing dunk rivalry with Superman himself. What he doesn't have, critics say, is heart. But if he gets a ring, he'll see how fast perceptions change.

DWIGHT HOWARD

CAVALIERS

Lj23 + So33 = Whynotium

Shaquille O'Neal spent the summer displaying the royal deference of a handmaiden. Or palace guard. "It's LeBron's team," he said at his introductory press conference in Cleveland. "I'm now in the security business. My job is to protect The King." Charming? Yes. Mature? Indubitably! Hollow? We'll see. Shaq craves attention and has a track record of tension (if not outright feuds) with co-stars. But there are two reasons things could be different this time: fame (how many guys are fi ve-time champs with three different clubs?) and fortune (in a walk year, he's said he'd like to run for two more-preferably with James in Cleveland). But that's a lot to expect from a guy more used to being the court jester.

SHAQUILLE O'NEAL

Ric Bucher

NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer