Grit, grind, grunt, groan. Welcome to the 2012-13 Boston Celtics without Rajon Rondo. Take away the most talented offensive weapon the Celtics have, and what is left? One of the more limited offenses in the NBA, yet perhaps one of the toughest defensive units in the league.
There have been a growing number of Celtics fans (tired of you, Bill Simmons) that question Rondo’s motivation and his mercurial play. Rondo is the supremely talented, yet-still-flawed (yes, human) point guard of the Celtics present, and hopefully, future. Yet, no matter how many triple-doubles he collects, and now matter how many memorable big-game performances he puts together, there are those fans who will question his mentality, his motivation, and his heart. Rondo is so talented, some fans have a hard time accepting his limitations. In order to gain a clearer perspective of what the Celtics will be missing over the next few months, lingering into May if they are lucky, let’s take a second and list Rondo’s pro’s and con’s.
Passing/Court vision: Rondo makes difficult one-handed passes seem routine. Whether they are half-court lobs to Garnett, or spinning, off-balance dishes to big men, Rondo has unique vision and threads the needle as well as anyone since John Stockton.
Penetrating ability: With Pierce’s age, Rondo has become their only real penetrator, creating passing lanes, leading to open jumpers and dishes at the rim. Lately, Courtney Lee has shown some determination to get to the rim, especially in the open court. Barbosa has speed enough to get by defenders, but can’t finish in the half-court. Jeff Green has shown glimpses of being able to create penetration. If the C’s can’t get out on the break without Rondo pushing the ball, they will struggle to get any regular penetration, which puts extra pressure on the three-point shot, and means Garnett’s top of the key jumper will be harder to set-up.
Rebounding: Rondo comes up with offensive rebounds in traffic, and helps out on the defensive glass as well as any point guard not named Jason Kidd. It’s not a coincidence both men have enormous hands.
Instincts for the ball: Deflections, open-court steals, and on tipped-rebounds and passes. Rondo seems to get to the loose ball before everyone else on the court at least once per game.
Jump-shot: Rondo came into the league with a weak jump shot, a big reason why the Celtics were able to draft him late in the first round. Over the last few years, Rondo’s 15-20 foot jumper has improved dramatically. Over 38 games this year, Rondo is shooting 48.5% (5.9-12.2). Despite hitting only 24% from range (0.3-1.3), Rondo is no longer afraid to take the open jumper, as evidenced by his performance against Chicago in three games this year. Thibodeau gave Rondo the open jumper, choosing to go under all screens.
Heart: Rondo is one of the best big-game players in the league. He thrives in the spotlight, whether that means the playoffs or nationally televised games against the best competition. Those fans that criticize Rondo’s motivation or his inconsistency should recognize that he is almost always excellent when it matters most. A few losses against weaker competition is worth one of the most dynamic offensive players in the NBA when the season is on the line.
Against the Bulls, a great example of a potential playoff opponent (defense-first, tough on the glass), Rondo was outstanding. He averaged 25.3 points on 58% shooting (10.3-18.3) in those contests, to go with 8.3 assists and nearly 6 free-throw attempts per game. In those games, Thibodeau, a defensive wizard, chose to let Rondo beat them, and he nearly did twice. The Celtics dropped two of the three games. They lost because of rebounding: Chicago’s out-boarded Boston by an average of 5 (42-37), and they lost because Paul Pierce can’t score against Luol Deng or anyone Thibodeau throws in against him: Pierce averaged 13 points on 13.3 shots (35%) against Chicago, including a dreadful 22% on threes (0.7-3.0).
Three-point shot: Rondo is a career 24% three-point shooter. He knows this is a weakness, and he rarely takes threes unless he has to at the end of the shot-clock or end of the quarter. Rondo’s biggest weakness is his inability to stretch the floor with the three-pointer. He has minimized that weakness by developing a solid 15-18 footer.
Gambling on defense: Rondo loves using his long-arms and great instincts to get steals. This leads to him gambling more often than he should. When Garnett is on the bench, this becomes a bigger problem, as KG’s help defense can take away some of the risk that Rondo’s gambling puts on the rest of the defense. Unlike Bradley, whose primary focus is to impede the path of the ball-handler, Rondo goes for the steal and leaves himself out of position and the other four defenders scrambling to contain his opponent’s penetration.
Avoiding contact in the lane: Rondo’s small frame (6’1″ 186 lbs) makes him vulnerable on penetration. He doesn’t have the girth to absorb the contact Chris Paul or Kyrie Irving do. What Rondo has is an array of spins and angles that most other penetrating guards don’t. Because Rondo is usually looking to pass at the rim, the defense often deflects his driving dishes. Rondo does not shoot free-throws well, likely a result of the size of his hands (remember Shaq)? The fear of missing free-throws, in addition to the very real threat of injury, combine to make Rondo somewhat hesitant about finishing at the rim.
Temper: Rondo’s temper has been noted in the past. He loses his cool with the referees. He has been described as stubborn and resistant to change. Really, his mentality is a lot like Garnett’s, and not much different than a certain Larry Bird, but his reputation now precedes him. It would certainly help Rondo and the Celtics if he learns how to bite his tongue with the refs, and learns how to soften up to the media at times.
On the Whole
A healthy Rajon Rondo gives the Celtics an excellent chance to win in the most meaningful games. His absence will mean an entirely different offense for Boston. One in which Paul Pierce has to become more of a ball-handler and facilitator, and Avery Bradley, Courtney Lee, Jeff Green and Jason Terry all will need to consistently find ways to score, either by knocking down corner three-pointers, slashing into the lane and absorbing contact, or getting out in transition on a regular basis. Without Rondo, the Celtics offense loses its compass, it’s spirit, and it’s dynamism. Anyone who claims the Celtics might play better without Rondo is ignoring how consistently dominant Rondo has been throughout the playoffs since 2008. They may play with more consistent defensive energy and may show improved offensive flow with contributions from Lee, Green, Terry and Barbosa (all four will touch the ball much more often), but their chances of winning in the playoffs without Rondo appear slim, unless three of the previous four players mentioned are able to reinvent themselves this season.
The Celtics find themselves in a difficult position. They now need a back-up center and a back-up penetrating point guard. Their best trade chips hold the keys to their own future (Bradley, Sullinger). They simply need more production from guys that have produced at various times in the past (Terry, Green, Lee).
On the other hand, if Jeff Green and Courtney Lee provide the kind of gritty, gut-check defense they showed in today’s double-overtime win against Miami, the offense will take care of itself on many nights. Green showed the Garden fans some serious resolve and determination the way he handled LeBron James in single coverage throughout the second half.
The losing streak is over. Rajon Rondo’s season is over. The Celtics season is at a cross-roads. But it ain’t over yet.