Minutes before the Celtics took the floor Friday night to take on the New York Knicks, they took a moment to honor Rajon Rondo for his contributions on the defensive end of the floor last season. Head coach Doc Rivers presented his young point guard with a plaque to commemorate his 189 steals and first-team All-Defense selection.
Little did anyone know what lay ahead — Rondo was about to dazzle the Celtics and their 18,624 fans with an incredible performance on the other end of the floor.
Rondo put forth a spectacular effort in the Celtics' dramatic 105-101 victory, turning in 10 points, 10 rebounds and a career-high 24 assists. It was a performance that wowed every single person in the building, including the future Hall of Famers playing alongside the 24-year-old guard.
"Oh, man," said an awed Kevin Garnett. "Stats are one thing, but influencing and controlling the game is another. He's a special player, man. Even on nights when he looks bad, he makes it look simple at times."
"I give my teammates credit," Rondo said. "They kept trusting me. Doc stayed with me as well. The first half was pretty bad — I couldn't make a shot, I turned the ball over, I missed free throws. But I just kept grinding, I kept going. And like I said, they believed in me."
At halftime, the story of the game was the Celtics' turnovers. They had piled up 11, leading to 11 Knicks points, and their execution problems threatened to derail them at home against a very beatable New York squad. It became a game of perseverance — Rondo continued to trust his teammates, and they continued to trust him. It soon paid off, with Rondo piling up seven assists in the third quarter and the C's beginning to pull away.
"I think this was an extraordinary win," Rivers said. "And the reason is that Rondo started off turning the ball over. And usually when you start off turning the ball over, you get conservative. It's rare that you start the way he started the game and then still end up with the game he had. That's a great sign for us and for his mental toughness. A year or two ago, there's no way that happens."
The Knicks picked up the tempo late in the game, refusing to back down when the Celtics tried to pull away. Even when Boston led by as much as 11 in the fourth quarter, the Knicks kept charging back.
It was all for naught. The Knicks tried to make a run at winning the game, and instead all they did was inflate the Celtics' eye-popping numbers. All five Boston starters plus Glen Davis all finished in double figures in scoring — Paul Pierce dropped 25 points, Garnett 25, Big Baby 16, and on down the list. Even Shaquille O'Neal scored 10 despite limited minutes. The way the C's were piling up points, it's no wonder Rondo's assist total climbed so high.
"Guys are making shots," Rondo said. "Shaq's finishing. Baby's playing terrific. It seems like every time I throw it to him, he's knocking down a shot for me. It's all about the teammates — they've got to make shots. If they don't make shots, then we don't have team assists."
Rondo can deflect the praise all he wants, but the Celtics all know the truth. Games like this remind them all that Rondo has emerged as the leader of his team, the guy that can step up and carry them to victory on any given night. His athletic gifts, his vision and his instincts have enabled him to become the backbone of the franchise.
"I'll put it like this," Garnett said. "If you're not ready, he'll embarrass you. He'll hit you right in the face with the ball if you're not ready. He'll definitely get on your behind if you're not ready. It's beautiful watching him grow, seeing how much he wants it and how hard he goes. Sometimes, he'll see something that you don't see, and he'll make you see it. I guess that's his point guard vision.
"He has a very high IQ when it comes to basketball. He understands angles. I think that's what makes him who he is. He plays both ends. He doesn't take nights off. You roll with a guy like that. We respect him even more because we've seen the process. It's good."
His coach is a little less impressed.
When asked what his own personal assist high was, back in his NBA point guard days, Rivers laughed dismissively.
"More than 24," the coach said. "That's all I'm going to say. He's done nothing."
He's kidding, folks. Doc Rivers knows it, and the rest of the world does too — his point guard is one of the best in the game. Friday night only proved that further.
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