BOSTON — There was a time when Rajon Rondo scoring 24 points on 8-of-16 shooting while hitting eight of his 12 free-throw attempts would have been the greatest thing in the world, or at least the greatest thing in that little corner of the world that houses North Station.
Back then, about two or three years ago, 24 points for Rondo would have meant just another 20-point scorer for the guys in green. It would have been a reason to prepare the sewing machines to stitch another banner.
Rondo's 24-point performance Wednesday against the Mavericks brought no celebration, though, and not merely because it came in a loss. High-scoring games have become commonplace this season for the Celtics' point guard, and if anything, such performances are not greeted with pleasure but concern.
"This is his team right now until everybody else gets it going," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said after the Celtics' 90-85 loss to the Mavericks, who are the defending NBA champions but have hardly played the part in the first 11 games of the season. "We need him to score and attack. That's a change, but that's what it is right now until everybody else gets it going, because they're not."
Rondo scoring 20 points is not a luxury. It is a necessity. Boston needed every last one of Rondo's points Wednesday to stay in the game, even if it effectively ended with his poor inbound pass with 5.1 seconds remaining.
Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen cannot be counted on for 20 points a night anymore, and they wouldn't need to be if the Celtics could find another reliable scorer to accompany Rondo. Although Brandon Bass continues to play well as a reserve and Mickael Pietrus gave the team a surprising amount of energy off the bench against the Mavericks, the Celtics are still trying to find another player to put the ball in the hoop.
Is Rondo really playing that much better than everyone else, Doc was asked.
"What do you think?" Rivers replied. "You see."
Allen has been unstoppable in some games, Rivers noted, such as against the Wizards when he went 6-of-7 from downtown or against the Heat, when he was 6-of-8. Garnett has been solid offensively and as good as ever defensively and on the boards, and Pierce can still be counted on for a clutch shot, like the one he hit Wednesday to tie the game with 25 seconds left.
Those are notable occurences now, though. They are no longer the norm. Whereas the Big Three once treated Rondo like a little brother, he is now the clear No. 1 of the group. Garnett went so far as to make Rondo the impetus for the NBA's "Big Things Are Coming" marketing campaign.
"Rajon's amazing, period," Garnett said. "They're talking about big things coming. Big things are here. Rajon's keeping us alive every night. We've got to make sure we follow his lead and continue to follow his effort and we're going to turn this thing around."
One way to look at this would be as the signal of the end, as a sign that an era has passed and that these glory days will soon join the ones Bostonians relive in old highlight reels of Larry Bird, John Havlicek or Bill Russell.
The other way to look at this is as the natural evolution from one generation to the next. Rondo is 25 years old, a decade younger than his future Hall-of-Fame teammates, and before long his likeness, not Pierce's, will be the one hanging from the exterior of the TD Garden. If the Celtics are to raise banner No. 18 any time soon, in all likelihood it will be Rondo who will lead them there. If Pierce, Allen and Garnett are still around, they'll be part of the group, practicing ubuntu while Rondo carries the biggest spear.
Rondo is ready to lead. No, scratch that. He already is leading, and in the long run the Celtics will be better for it.