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Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Updated: October 14, 10:32 PM ET
Rondo on the run

By Chris Sheridan
ESPN.com

NEWARK, N.J. -- If not for a minor hissy fit thrown by Rajon Rondo, his box score stat line would have read 25 minutes played -- and the Boston Celtics would be a .500 team thus far in the preseason.

But Rondo has been asked to take on a greater leadership role this season, and he did so with his words and his actions in a timeout late in the third quarter Tuesday night.

"He wanted to stay in. He begged to stay in. He said, 'I want to see if I can bring them back,'" Doc Rivers said.

Rivers yielded to Rondo's wishes, let him play the entire second half and watched his point guard lead Boston back from a 14-point deficit to defeat the New Jersey Nets, 91-88, in a preseason game at the Prudential Center, a few miles down the turnpike from the Meadowlands.

Rondo nearly had a triple-double, finishing with 18 points, 13 assists and 9 rebounds, and his pinpoint pass to Eddie House, coming off a perfect screen set by Glen Davis, led to a 15-footer with 32 seconds left that put Boston in front to stay.

"I just want to win. Doesn't matter if it's preseason to me," Rondo said. "You don't put on your uniform to lose, and I don't want to give any team any confidence; I wanted to win regardless of who we played or whether it's a preseason game or not. I just feel like I'm young, and I want to play as much as possible and continue to get better. The older guys, they may want to rest, but that's because they're veterans. Me, my third or fourth year in, I'd rather play."

The veterans Rondo spoke of -- Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce -- were given the night off by Rivers on the opening end of a back-to-back set. Rondo started in the backcourt alongside House, with Marquis Daniels, Rasheed Wallace and Kendrick Perkins the other starters.

Rivers said Rondo can expect to play another 40 minutes Wednesday night when the Celtics take on the Raptors in Hartford, Conn., then backed off and said he was joking. But in actuality, Rivers knows he can't do much to deter Rondo's enthusiasm -- especially after the Celtics told him they expected to see more leadership qualities out of him before they make him a solid offer on a contract extension. (The deadline for Rondo to sign an extension is the end of this month; otherwise he'll become a restricted free agent in July.)

Rondo is in the somewhat tricky position of being asked to be a leader, on and off the court, among a group of core players who are all at least 9 years older than he is.

That age disconnect must be navigated somehow, and Rondo's occasional difficulty doing so was one of the factors that led the Celtics to entertain trade offers for Rondo this summer. But team president Danny Ainge has said this fall that he'd like to see Rondo remain the team leader for the next decade -- as long as Rondo proves himself worthy first.

Of being a leader, Rondo said, "I wouldn't say it's difficult. I've been the key guy at everything I did growing up -- point guard in basketball, quarterback in football, in baseball I was a pitcher. It's a bigger level here, but now it's been three years, and they're very humble guys for three future Hall of Famers, and it's not hard to try to take charge."

Some might argue that Rondo already has proved his alpha-dog capabilities the past two seasons, but the Celtics have told him what they told him -- which is another reason it made so much sense for Rondo to "beg," as Rivers put it, to stay in the game Tuesday night.

"He's young, and he's trying to lead stars, and that's not easy," Rivers said. "But you do it by example, that's what we talk about a lot. You don't do it by verbal."

Well, usually not.

But on this otherwise meaningless Tuesday night in Newark, a little verbal to Rivers from Rondo got him what he wanted -- an opportunity to lead, to perform and to see whether he could rally his team, all of which he did while playing more than 40 minutes as his elders (those same 30-something teammates who fooled rookie Lester Hudson into thinking he would have to sing "Happy Birthday" to Rivers and Pierce over the PA system) sat back and watched.