It all started just two Sundays ago, when a questionable no-foul call induced a quick game of soft toss off a referee’s chest, a two-game suspension and the resurfacing of maturity issues that many thought had finally subsided.
What’s ensued has been a whirlwind of speculation and a swirl of trade rumors worthy of Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton‘s pursuit in the 1996 action thriller Twister.
But all that changed on Sunday.
It wasn’t but five days earlier that nearly every expert around the NBA was willing to give Rajon Rondo the heave-ho right on out of Boston. Even amidst his third All-Star selection, Danny Ainge and the rest of Celtics Nation had seemingly had enough of the much-maligned point guard’s wayward attitude and inconsistent play. Whether Ainge or coach Doc Rivers would admit to it, the consensus was that it was time for a changing of the guard — literally.
Suddenly, Rondo’s name was being mentioned in just about every possible trade scenario around the league and even with his near double-double averages on the season, 13 points and nine assists at the time, his value was as low as ever. No one wanted to pay a fair price for a point guard with a bad attitude and no jump shot. And who could blame them?
The rumors initially seemed to only inhibit Rondo even more, as the sixth-year guard was held scoreless and completely shown up by rookie Kyrie Irving during the Celtics 86-83 win over the Cavaliers last week.
Seemingly, things couldn’t get much worse for the star point guard as it appeared he finally hit rock bottom. Maybe he wasn’t the building block for a franchise. Maybe he was just another complimentary player with an oversize ego.
That very realization, the thought that he may not have what it takes to be the top dog, appears to be the single thing that set him off, even if he won’t admit it.
“I don’t listen to it, because I just think everything happens for a reason, and whatever happens will happen,” Rondo said of the trade rumors, following the Celtics 115-111 overtime win on Sunday. “It’s not a distraction for me. All I do is try to concentrate on keep getting better, regardless of where I’m at. I just play.”
Yet, his play has shown otherwise.
On Wednesday, just one night after dropping his goose egg in Cleveland and listening to the increasing echo of rumors, Rondo turned his game on and his attitude around with one of his best performances of the year. Rondo put together his 15th career triple-double, scoring 15 points to go along with 10 assists and 11 rebounds, in the 102-96 win over Milwaukee. In the win, he also put on a defensive display, holding guard Brandon Jennings to just six points on the night — well below his 18.6 per game average.
Rondo had reasserted his dominance, but this same inconsistent play had been seen so many times before. What was different about this time?
The visibly energized Rondo seemed focused, a look that the athletic anomaly typically only gets when he’s in a big game on the national stage. Yet, in a Friday night game against the lowly New Jersey Nets, Rondo followed up his outstanding by getting the better of all-world guard Deron Williams with 14 points, 13 assists and five steals in the C’s 107-94 victory.
Then came Sunday.
Throughout his six year NBA career, Rondo has had a number of outstanding performances including a 24-assist effort against New York early last season and of course nearly averaging a triple-double throughout the entire 2009 first-round playoff series with the Chicago Bulls. But none were quite as impressive as Sunday’s incomparable 18-20-17 triple-double against the Knicks.
With the feat, Rondo became just the third player in NBA history with at least 15 points, 20 assists and 15 rebounds in a game. The only others to achieve that eye-popping stat line were a pair of Hall of Famers in Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson — talk about elite company. Not even the ever-heralded Magic Johnson, widely considered the best rebounding point guard of all time, was able to accomplish that.
That type of performance is not just one for the record books or for stat junkies to drool over. It is the very type of show that a true franchise player would put on. A performance that not only deserves kudos from analysts and experts, but one that garners attention from a colleague that scored 57 points the same day.
A player better known in some circles for his cold attitude and unwelcoming demeanor than his unparalleled court vision and uncharacteristic athleticism, Rondo has never been the media’s sweetheart. But the 26-year-old guard has always tried to use the unrelenting criticism as motivation to raise his game.
The recent surge in his play may simply be Rondo’s “forget-you moment,” in which he proves all the doubters in the media or around the league wrong. Then again, maybe it’s just the first sign of a more composed and mature Rondo. At least his teammates seem to think so.
After Sunday’s outrageous performance, Celtics captain Paul Pierce excitedly showered his praises on his point guard.
“That’s the Rondo we like to see, playing with all that energy,” Pierce said. “He got the guys the ball in open spots; he did everything for us [on Sunday]. He rebounded, he passed, he got the clutch rebound there in overtime and got the layup. That’s the Rondo I like to see.”
Kevin Garnett echoed Pierce’s sentiments, and even went as far to address the origin of Rondo’s motivation — the trade rumors.
“You could see it on his face. Just like when he was playing Deron Williams [on Friday]. If you’re going to be anything in this league, you’ve got to play against your position. [And] trade talks really are a good motivating factor for him,” Garnett said, doling out some of his highest praises. “If you know Rondo, he’s an I’ll-show-you type of person, very motivated, and that’s what you love about him.”
The issue tends to be that Rondo isn’t able to keep up such a high level of motivation and falls into extended slumps against lesser competition — such as a zero-point night in Cleveland or a five-point, seven-assist night in a February loss at Toronto. That may be in large part due to his immaturity, which has also been widely seen as the cause for his poisonous attitude.
Following Sunday’s game, the overwhelming feeling to trade Rondo had generally subsided. It was now a popular belief that Rondo was indeed a building block for the future, quite to contrary of what many were saying just a week earlier.
Will he continue to shine only in big moments, such as on national television where 11 of his 16 career triple-doubles have occurred, and shrink against lesser opponents, or will he finally seize the opportunity and assert himself consistently as one of the best players in all of basketball? The final verdict will ultimately be decided by Rondo’s play on the court, but one thing is for certain he should not be for sale.
Danny Ainge may not be able to predict the future or even anticipate Rondo’s developing maturity, but after seeing what he is capable first-hand on Sunday there is no way that Ainge can reasonably trade away one of the best all-around guards in the league.