While the simple storyline from the Celtics' 106-104 loss to the Knicks on Sunday will be that New York's renewed commitment to defense came through with a defensive stop on the final possession, some things are worth keeping in mind — mainly that the Knicks did not really make any defensive stops down the stretch.
Former Celtic Bill Walker was able to bother Kevin Garnett's last-second shot, and offseason acquisition Tyson Chandler did block six shots for the Knicks. But New York also gave up more than 100 points, as usual, and surrendered a double-digit lead to a Celtics team playing without Paul Pierce, who was sidelined with a bone bruise in his right heel.
It's premature to draw a conclusion from one game, especially the first regular-season game at the end of nearly six months without organized hoops as a result of the lockout. But unlike the victory for the Knicks, who have made inconsistency their calling card under coach Mike D'Antoni, there is a major takeaway from the Christmas Day game.
Rajon Rondo may turn out to be an MVP candidate this season.
Rondo will not light up the scoreboard with 31 points, 13 assists, five rebounds and five steals every night, as he did Sunday at Madison Square Garden. What we know about Rondo, though, is that his competitiveness pushes him to improve in the exact areas his critics say he is flawed, and after two preseason games and one regular-season tilt, it appears he has corrected his two biggest holes: jump shots and free throws.
Rondo was consistent from 12 feet and out on Sunday, knocking down three of the six long 2-pointers he attempted. He also hit nine of his 12 foul shots, which means nearly half of his points came via shots that, according to the scouting report, he can't make.
The bar for a point guard winning the MVP award has been set high, with just two point guards — Derrick Rose of the Bulls and Steve Nash of the Suns — winning the award since 1990-91. Rose and Nash provided a blueprint, however, for what a point guard needs to do to earn the Maurice Podoloff Trophy.
The most obvious way is Rose's method of scoring 25 points per game for the top seed in the conference. Nash's route is more realistic for Rondo. In fact it's more than realistic that Rondo will equal or surpass the 15.5 points and 11.5 assists per game Nash recorded in his first MVP season of 2004-05. Still, it's not necessary to win MVP to be considered an MVP-caliber player.
Statistics aren't the full measure, of course, and not even a 20-point, 10-assist season (which would be both outstanding and unlikely) assures any individual honors. For the past couple of years, observers have wondered when and if Rondo will supplant Pierce, Garnett and Ray Allen as the best player on the team. That day seems to have arrived.
Rondo's minutes have increased every year he's been in the league to a high of 37.2 last season. That number should rise for a sixth consecutive season in 2011-12. He played a game-high 41:16 on Sunday, and as coach Doc Rivers tries to control the minutes for his aging veterans, Rondo will get even more minutes with a younger, more explosive unit that includes bruiser Brandon Bass and incoming gunner Mickael Pietrus. Expect Rondo to not only be on the floor as much as any player in the league, but to be the first option of offense much more often than in the past.
More minutes plus more shots, along with the ample assists and steals upon which Rondo has already built his reputation, could equal an MVP-like campaign for the 25-year-old Kentuckian.
It is possible that Sunday's game may turn out to be a fluke. Rondo has gone through stretches in his career when he's hit the outside jumper with regularity for three or four games, sparked talk that he has begun to turn a corner, then reverted back to brick-laying.
Maybe it was the spiked eggnog and stifling heat generated by the Snuggie built for two, but watching this one felt different. Rondo looked like he wanted to shoot those jump shots, and Allen and Garnett showed no hesitation giving him the ball at the end of the shot clock. The veterans already recognize that this is Rondo's team, even if they (particularly Garnett) might never admit it.
Once Pierce returns and Pietrus arrives, the Celtics will probably win games like Sunday's, when Rivers could have used another physical wing defender to throw at Anthony. This team is incomplete, but Rondo was able to shade over most of those shortcomings on Sunday. If Rondo accomplishes anything approaching that level of play in the next 65 games, by the end of the season he will be more than a good complementary player. He may be one of the best.