- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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BOSTON -- Rajon Rondo has his own ideas on how things should go. He was convinced the best way to compensate for the numbing loss of Kevin Garnett in the Boston Celtics' opening playoff game was to attack the Chicago Bulls, to exploit them with his speed and his cunning and his athleticism.
But Rondo didn't count on rookie point guard Derrick Rose upstaging him with his own spectacular arsenal of penetration moves. He never expected Chicago's pick-and-roll sets to shred his team's defense. Fourteen of the final 18 Bulls possessions in Game 1 were a result of that fundamental concept. Rose torched the Celtics for 36 points in Chicago's win and, while Boston failed collectively in executing the proper defensive rotations, Rondo was more specific in placing the blame.
It was on him.
"I don't think I got four hours' sleep after that game," Rondo confessed. "I was really down. I put so much pressure on myself. It took a lot out of me."
Before Game 2, the kid who thought he had all the answers went to coach Doc Rivers searching for guidance. Should he slow down the pace? Should he have gotten Paul Pierce involved earlier? Did he shoot too much? Should he stop reaching?
The questions were valid, borne from a sleepless night of introspection. Most days, Rivers came to practice prepared to knock his point guard, brimming with bravado, down a peg. This time Rivers became concerned Rondo was grappling with too many internal issues to approach Game 2 with a clear head.
"You have the keys to the team," Rivers told him. "Just go out and play."
Just play. It has been a complex process for the 23-year-old guard, who spent a breakout season overshadowed by cerebral veterans with strong opinions and gaudy résumés.
Before Garnett went down with an injured knee, if the World Champion Boston Celtics fell behind in a tight game, KG and Pierce and Ray Allen felt compelled to make things right. As their competitive urges simultaneously kicked in, their thought process tended to lead them to an identical conclusion: Give me the ball.
The problem was only one of them could have it.
It was up to Rondo, their skinny "little brother" with the elastic arms, the break-neck first step and the deadpan expression that belied the passion with which he played the game, to determine who should be awarded the critical shot.
The veterans teased Rondo mercilessly about everything; for going shirtless in practice to show off his pecs, for mimicking facets of their pregame routine, for believing the exclusive Celtics championship nucleus should be the Big Four instead of just three. Yet when the game was on the line, they learned to embrace the notion their livelihood rested in Rondo's oversized palms.
"What they came to realize," said Celtics general manager Danny Ainge recently, "is they need him every bit as much as he needs them."
That is true now more than ever. The Chicago Bulls are Boston's worst nightmare -- a young, athletic team that thrives in transition. Rondo fits that bill; most of the more celebrated Celtics, including their captain, don't. Perhaps that is why, on the eve of Game 3, it is Rondo who leads the team in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals in the series.
Although Ray Allen knocked down the game winner in Game 2, it was Rondo (19 points, 12 rebounds, 16 assists, 5 steals) who forced tempo, choked off Rose's attempts to drive into the paint and delivered the ball to his scorers.
Sometimes during the regular season when Allen gestured for the ball, Rondo stared right through one of the best pure shooters in the game to feed Pierce on the opposite wing because he knew he needed to keep the Truth involved. When Garnett established position in the post and signaled he was open, his arms flailing for emphasis, Rondo blithely glided past him, exploiting the seam in the defense the double-team on KG created.
Those decisions did not make him popular, but they made him respected.
"He earned our trust," Pierce confirmed. "When you think about it, [his job] is probably a little intimidating. I can't imagine being a second- or third-year player and trying to divvy up the ball between three All-Stars."
Doc Rivers helped Rondo prepare for the job by sharing stories of his tour of duty as a 27-year-old point guard with the 1988-89 Atlanta Hawks, a team that featured future Hall of Famers Moses Malone and Dominique Wilkins and the prolific Reggie Theus. All three were double-figure scorers and none had any qualms about pulling Rivers aside and demanding more touches.
It went on like that for nearly a month. Finally, with the Hawks lined up for a foul shot, each grabbed Doc and whispered, "Get it to me. I'm feeling it."
The next time down the floor, Rivers pointedly glared at all three of them and hoisted a 3-pointer.
"I missed -- but that was beside the point," he explained to Rondo. "My message was clear: 'This is my show.'"
I'm just telling you, Rajon is real cocky. He's got swagger. The good kind.
-- Kendrick Perkins
Rondo has delivered the same edict by paring down his assist-to-turnover ratio (3.15 to 1) and shooting 50.5 percent from the floor in the regular season. Though Rondo weighs just a wisp over 170 pounds, he proved to be both rugged and durable, even after re-aggravating an ankle sprain in Game 2 that left his foot swollen to three times its normal size. Rondo sat out Tuesday's practice, but vowed, "I'm taping it up, and I'm playing."
When the Celtics signed veteran Stephon Marbury, a number of pundits wondered if it was a good idea. Marbury is a strong personality who, so the theory went, could disrupt the psyche of a young player. Rondo's teammates howled when they heard that. Lack of confidence is rarely an issue. Ask Rondo who the quickest player is in the NBA and he doesn't hesitate.
"You mean, besides me?" he said.
"I'm just telling you, Rajon is real cocky," said center Kendrick Perkins. "He's got swagger. The good kind."
That wasn't always true. Two seasons ago, before the banners and the plaudits and applause, when Rondo was in charge of a team that won just 24 games, he'd throw a no-look bullet and when it was dropped out of bounds he'd roll his eyes in exasperation. If he set up a shooter for the open jumper and it clanged off the rim, the shooter was subjected to the Rondo stare, a look steeped in disdain and aggravation.
Rivers hauled his supposed floor leader into his office and asked him, "Do you know your teammates hate playing with you?"
Rondo displayed no emotion, but his coach's comments left him struggling to breathe.
"The point guard has to be the guy that brings energy to the team," Rivers chided him. "You can't be the guy that sucks it away. Your moodiness is affecting us. Change it."
Rondo retreated to his apartment to process Rivers' rebuke.
"It was a reality check," Rondo admitted. "I wasn't positive. If I threw a pass they didn't catch, instead of saying, 'Let's get the next one,' I'd make a face. It wasn't what I said. It was more my body language."
This was not a new refrain. When Rondo signed with Kentucky, coach Tubby Smith salivated over the potential of a "world class athlete" who he believed could clear 7 feet in the high jump or challenge the collegiate record in the 100 meters.
Smith's preseason drills included sprinting a series of 200-yard dashes. Rondo developed a habit of running at half speed, then casually turning it up a notch at the finish line.
"His teammates were working so hard, and at the last minute he's blowing past them," Tubby said. "They knew he was better. But when he wouldn't show it every time ..."
The kid wouldn't subscribe to Smith's walk-it-up style of play, so he often highjacked the tempo of the game, pushing his own basketball agenda. He set a school record for steals, but had no perimeter game and no patience for the mistakes of his peers. He was inconsistent; brilliant one day, barely engaged the next, alternately delighting and enraging his teammates.
"If you want them to respect you, you have to make them better," Smith said.
"But coach," Rondo complained, "they keep dropping the ball."
"Rajon," Smith answered, "then figure out a pass they can catch."
Rondo's indifference left Smith commiserating with his assistants late into the night. "We'd ask ourselves, 'How can we get Rajon to go beyond?'" he said.
Soon Ainge and Rivers were posing the same question. It all came too easily for Rondo, and it wasn't until the arrival of the Big Three that he met his athletic match. KG, Pierce and Allen demonstrated the one trait he lacked -- consistency. He dutifully (and silently) monitored their habits. He noticed each of them came to the arena at the same time every game day. Allen had a litany of specific rituals to prepare himself, including a pregame shower.
Rondo identified with some of Allen's compulsive routines. For years, Rondo went to great pains to make sure his feet never touched the ground. That required a towel in front of his locker, flip flops available at all times, especially when walking around a hotel room.
"You won't ever see me barefoot," Rondo said.
The point guard's own pregame routine now includes five showers a day: when he wakes up, after shootaround, after his nap, after he completes his pregame warm-up at the Garden and after the actual game. Before Garnett went down, Rondo also began joining KG on the bench in the pregame huddle, waiting until Rivers declared "Let's go!" before standing up. It was something Garnett had done since he arrived in Boston.
"Then one day I look over and there's Rondo," said Allen. "We laugh about it, but you know what? He's learning, watching all the time. Some guys try to get through this league by the seat of their pants.
"Rajon is not going to be one of those players."
Rondo's new edict is not to allow his routine to hold him hostage. On Dec. 15 against Utah, Rondo found himself mired in one of Boston's notorious traffic jams. He got off one exit earlier than normal to avoid the gridlock but his strategy backfired and he needed a police escort to the Garden. He made it with a couple of minutes to spare, but missed out on his pregame shooting and his customary pregame shower.
"I'm going to play bad," Rondo said to Perkins, as they took the floor.
Two and a half hours later, Rondo walked off with 25 points, 9 assists and 8 rebounds against Deron Williams, one of the top point guards in the league. The Celtics won 100-81.
The single biggest thing with him is getting him to compete night in and night out.
-- Danny Ainge
If only, Ainge and Rivers lament, the kid would demonstrate that focus through 82 games.
"The single biggest thing with him," said Ainge, "is getting him to compete night in and night out."
The adjustments come in spurts. Last season when teams left him open for the perimeter jumper, Rondo took it personally. He was easily baited into pulling up for that 16-footer.
"But he's become much more aware of what his team needs," observed Lakers point guard Derek Fisher. "He's learned that sometimes passing up an open shot is the best thing he can do.
"That's what separated him from other guys this season. He's fine with 8 points and 10 assists or 18 points and 10 assists. That's maturity."
There are still days when Rondo's ideas of what is best are problematic. He is an accomplished rebounder, yet when he barrels in for an offensive rebound against a team like Chicago and doesn't come up with it, that translates into two easy transition points for the Bulls.
"If the ball goes up, I want to get it," Rondo said. "But there's a fine line there."
"He's stubborn," Ainge said. "He doesn't always take direction well. He's very bright and knows what he needs to do to be successful.
"But sometimes he doesn't understand what the team needs to be successful."
Just play. His coach implored his young point guard to follow his gifted instincts. "Just remember to bring your teammates along for the ride," Doc said.
"As long as they can keep up with me," Rondo answered.
He was kidding. Right? Hard to say when the goal of the floor leader of the Boston Celtics is to never let his feet touch the ground.
Jackie MacMullan is a columnist for ESPN.com.
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