BOSTON — Anyone who thought Rajon Rondo returned two weeks ago, when he took the court for the first time in nearly a calendar year, can be forgiven. Rondo did not come back that day, nor was he back in the five games he played afterward.
No, the player wearing No. 9 for the Boston Celtics was not Rondo. It was only his shell, a player who resembled him in appearance and style but was not the game-altering presence the real Rondo is at full strength.
That Rondo didn’t show up until Sunday.
In 27 superb minutes, the last eight of which were downright dominant, Rondo piled up 19 points, 10 assists, six rebounds and three steals to lead the Celtics over the reeling Orlando Magic. With Jared Sullinger and Brandon Bass battling the paint-packing Magic, Rondo stepped outside the fray and almost single-handedly guided the Celtics to just their fourth win in their last 23 games.
For the first time since his return Jan. 17 from a torn ACL, Rondo offered a reminder of the singular talent he is, as well as a sign that he might soon get back to the caliber of player he can be.
“Just his ability to orchestrate,” Magic coach Jacque Vaughn marveled. “The play comes down in the fourth quarter, he sees the pass before everyone else does. He kicks it to Jeff Green for a jumper, he gets into the lane, he reads the defense. He’s done it a few times before.”
Analyzing Rondo’s performance this season takes more than a quick look at the Celtics’ 1-6 record with him in the lineup. Advanced statistics also fail here, due to the small sample size. The only way to judge Rondo so far has been to watch him and see how the Celtics execute differently now than before.
Almost any player with a reasonable handle can bring the ball up the court and run an offense for 3 1/2 quarters. Jordan Crawford illustrated this in the first two months of the season as Boston’s nominal point guard. But when the score got close and the clock began to run down, the wheels came off. Too many crunch time possessions devolved into Crawford or Green, inefficient scorers both, isolating against a set defense before taking a well-contested shot.
Since Rondo’s return, the Celtics have lost their share of close games. Rondo’s debut ended with him missing a 3-pointer at the buzzer against the Los Angeles Lakers, and he was on the bench for the team’s first win since his return, resting while Gerald Wallace hit a game-winning layup against the Washington Wizards.
But on Sunday, Rondo resembled his old self in the clutch. If not for a blip in the official scoring — which inexplicably failed to credit Rondo with an assist on his pass to Green for a made jump shot with 1:22 left in the game — Rondo would have scored or assisted Boston’s final 21 points on Sunday. With Rondo directing traffic, the Celtics shot 50 percent from the field for the first time since Dec. 8.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens was asked several times after the game about the difference Rondo brings.
“We execute a little crisper,” Stevens said. “Obviously, the ball’s in one person’s hands a little bit longer, but that’s because he’s kind of your playmaker and leader and a person who can create for himself and others.”
The challenge is to not lean on Rondo too heavily. One major flaw for the Celtics over the last couple of seasons has been the team’s occasional over-reliance on Rondo to run their offense. He ended up holding the ball for half the shot clock before flinging a nifty pass to a teammate for a shot that wasn’t all that good, without leaving his teammate any options except firing a shot desperately before the buzzer sounded. Stevens, who watched hours of video of Rondo’s game play this summer, is on the lookout for such tendencies. He hasn’t seen them yet.
“I do think the actions are good,” Stevens said. “The ball seems to have found the right guys a lot, and I think that’s more so guys getting used to playing with one another.”
Avery Bradley, Rondo’s favored partner in the backcourt, has felt right at home paired with Rondo on defense, as well.
“We’re able to read each other very well,” Bradley said. “We pick our spots. I can pressure somebody into a situation that makes them uncomfortable, and he’s able to play the passing lanes to get the steal. We just play off each other.”
As Rondo cautioned after Sunday’s victory, it’s just one game — and one game against one of the NBA’s least-formidable squads, at that. No one is nominating Rondo for All-NBA consideration quite yet, and the Celtics remain fourth from the bottom in the Eastern Conference standings at 16-33. Rondo is not yet at the point where he can offset Green’s inconsistent focus and energy or the team’s shortage of steady shooters to stretch the defense.
Yet for the first time, Rondo looked capable of keeping the Celtics in games they have no business being in and putting his teammates in positions to be better than they really are. He played like the player the Celtics have been missing since that January night in Atlanta last season. He played like he was back.