It's over. The case is closed. Any trade talk involving Rajon Rondo has to cease, and if the Celtics aim to improve their team before Thursday's trade deadline, they had better investigate other avenues than trading their 26-year-old point guard.
Rondo's performance Monday cemented his status as the fulcrum of the Celtics' machine. If you didn't stay up to watch the Celtics' 94-85 win over the Clippers, you may look at Rondo's 12 points, 10 assists and three steals as nothing special. As a line in the box score, it's nowhere near the category of his 18-point, 17-rebound, 20-assist triple-double against the Knicks two Sundays ago.
Stats, as somebody smarter than myself once said, are a crutch for people who don't actually understand the game. With the many factors taken into account, Monday's performance was just as impressive, if not more so, than that jaw-dropping afternoon against New York. More than any box score could show, Rondo revealed his true value to the Celtics in a gutsy effort in the second game of an eight-game road swing.
This was Rondo, the ultimate competitor, at his competitive best. His opposite number, Chris Paul, is regularly upheld as the pinnacle of point guarddom, a player almost every right-thinking Celtics fan would deal Rondo for in a straight-up trade.
With the help of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, Paul has transformed Los Angeles into Lob City, but Rondo didn't impetuously try to out-lob them. Paul leads everyone in the NBA, aside for Kobe Bryant, in fourth-quarter scoring, but Rondo didn't try to outscore Paul in the final frame. Paul's 18-foot jump shot might be the most deadly and underrated weapon in the game, but Rondo didn't force up any deep jumpers of his own to prove "Hey, I can do that, too."
We've seen Rondo at his competitive worst. Flipping the ball at referee Sean Wright, earning a two-game suspension, was such a moment. Occasionally he lets his inner fire get the best of him, runs blindly to the hoop without any hope of scoring, attempts to thread the needle through passing lanes that aren't there, starts chirping at teammates who are just trying their best.
That Rondo — the Bad Rondo — could have showed up at any time Monday. The game had that feel, with Kevin Garnett, Doc Rivers and Greg Stiemsma picking up technical fouls in a chippy game that included 50 fouls. When Griffin, also the recipient of a technical foul late in the first quarter, swung his elbows a little too wildly in the directions of Stiemsma and Rondo late in the game, Rondo appeared ready to blow.
Instead, Rondo stepped calmly but forcefully toward Griffin and said a few words. From the expression on Rondo's face, it was clear his message wasn't pleasant. But it also wasn't enough to get him T'd up at a juncture when every point was precious.
The entire second half was filled with examples like that, moments that won't show up in the statistics but made all the difference in keeping the Celtics from coughing up another lead in Los Angeles for the second straight day.
The start of Rondo's finest stretch came with just under nine minutes left in the game, after Ray Allen had scored six straight points on a helpless Mo Williams. Allen had Williams posted up again on the left side, but Rondo had the audacity to wave off the 16th-year veteran. Allen, to his credit, obliged, and as he moved out of the post Garnett was able to slip behind his defender for a dunk, off a feed from Rondo. Garnett, who was fouled on the play by Reggie Evans, converted the free throw to give the Celtics a 10-point lead.
The Celtics came up empty on their next four possessions. (One of those was due to a bad pass by Rondo that resulted in a turnover.) After Paul's three-point play cut the Clippers' deficit to 71-68, Rondo beat Paul off the dribble and drew a foul. The notoriously bad free throw shooter went 2-for-2 to give Boston some breathing room again.
The final minutes were filled with plays like these, highlighted by Rondo's "hockey assist" of a 3-pointer by Paul Pierce that stretched a two-point Celtics lead to five. Rondo sliced into the lane and the defense collapsed, so he fired a one-handed pass to Mickael Pietrus at the 3-point line. Pietrus, who didn't have his feet set, handed the ball to Pierce for the 3-pointer. The play didn't garner Rondo one of his 10 assists, but it was vital in making something happen.
The entire time, Paul and the Clippers tried to get into the heads of Rondo and the Celtics. A soft bump by Brandon Bass in the backcourt resulted in Paul sprawling as though he had been shot. Jordan's persistent yapping seemed to get on the nerves of even Garnett, a notorious trash-talker. Allen and Williams had an ongoing passive-aggressive scowl-off.
Almost everyone on the Celtics, from Rivers on down, got caught up in it at times, with the exception of Rondo and Pierce. Pierce scored 25 points and seven straight Celtics points in one stretch, while Rondo kept the Celtics focused when the extracurricular activities threatened to steal the Celtics' concentration.
Trade this guy? Not Monday night. If the Celtics are smart, probably not ever.