|Posted by paul on May 10, 2013 at 9:00 AM|
It's stunning, isn't it, to think back to the way many of us felt about these Celtics late last summer and early in the fall? We couldn't wait for the season to start. Danny had made one smart move after another. This was to be the beginning of Rondo's Reign, and the team seemed to have been redesigned with that in mind. Rondo said it was more talented than the 2008 team, or as talented, or some such thing. Ray was gone, and that was a heartbreaker, but maybe it was for the best. Media reports about the revamped Celtics were glowing so brightly that they could have been written by the Celtics PR section (well, basically they were, right?!). Everyone loved Rondo and recognized that this was fully his team now. Jason Terry thought that Rajon Rondo was everything.
Then reality hit hard, and right off the bat, too. The Cs didn't just lose their first exhibition game, to a european team no less (a good one, but still…); they got handled. The opposing team's point guard torched us, and that turned out to be a season-long problem (shades of Ray Felton), one that was blamed on Rondo, but then Avery Bradley had the same difficulty in the end, so who is to blame? The new and newish guys didn't seem to be on the same page with Rondo as much as they claimed, and once again the defense and rebounding suffered for lack of a true center. Yeah, that Perkins thing.
Looking back, one thing stands out: the loss of Ray Allen. I think it's clear now that Doc - and maybe Rondo too - were just about totally blind-sided by the loss of Ray Allen. Danny moved on quickly, not just bringing in reinforcements, but seeming to change the basic design of the team, to something more Rondo-friendly. It looked like we would see more of an up-tempo game, and it looked like Rondo would have a plethora of options as he moved around the court on offense. There would be guys spotting up. There would be guys posting up. There would be guys cutting to the basket. But what we saw on the court appeared to be a team that had no real plan, beyond 'Ray's gone - who seems most like Ray?' That turned out to be Jason Terry, who turned in a very poor imitation of Ray Allen.
Sad to say, I fear that we just watched an entire season of the Boston Celtics pining for Kendrick Perkins and Ray Allen! It was not as uplifting an experience as many of us probably anticipated when the year began…
Something else happened this year, though, and it may turn out to have been far more important. I think that most people would agree that this was the first year Rondo hasn't been a better player than he was the year before. It seemed to be a tortured and torturing season for Rondo. It started hopefully. Even though the team struggled to play well together on either end - a situation that wasn't entirely surprising, considering how many new players were involved - and Rondo didn't seem to be grasping the reins particularly well on either end, he WAS playing consistently well. He was posting double-doubles every night and extending his double digit assist streak, while leading the league in minutes, or close to. His shooting was clearly better, and though his defense was down, his scoring was up. It looked like a situation that could steadily improve.
Then came the game where Rondo apparently asked Doc to let him stay in longer, so he could keep The Streak going. It should have been an innocuous incident that passed without mention, or - more ideally - with some constructive criticism. As I've mentioned before, I think that Rondo has clearly earned the right to constructive criticism, but as far as I know, he's never gotten this from the media and fans. The way many fans and writers reacted to the Streak Extension game was unholy. Led by Bob Ryan, as I recall, they excoriated Rondo for his supposed selfishness. It seemed as though the gates of Hell, jammed shut by Rondo's performance at the end of last season, burst open and a tsunami of vitriol burst forth. The scorch marks are still visible on the walls of buildings around the Boston Garden. Tourists will be examining them with trembling and awe for decades.
The Mighty Ryan roared, and Rondo faltered. He seemed to become more confused about what he needed to do to lead the team, and it became worse when his attempt to remind the team that it needed to be tough - his fight with Kris Humphries - something that would have been praised to the skies had Larry done it, led to more media outrage. The Mighty Ryan sputtered, even though no one should have known better than he what Rondo was trying to do.
Ryan is right about one thing. The problem is leadership. This was Rondo's first season as the unquestioned leader of the team, and he often struggled. Almost everything that happened this season can be interpreted in that light, and probably should be. Perhaps the real problem for Rondo's foes is that they do not understand that leadership is a thing that can and must be learned, and it's not the same for every person. For Rondo, learning how to lead may be harder than it is for most top players. He has played his entire career under the shadow of great players. Even last year it was clear, I thought, that teammates paid lip service to Rondo's leadership, but seemed to pay more attention to Garnett, Pierce and even Terry. The long-time veterans carried more weight. Beyond that, though, Rondo seems to be someone who does not relate particularly well socially.
But I think it should have been clear to even Rondo's harshest critics that he was trying very hard to lead his team and that he was unsure how to do it. One day he was calling out players in the media. Another day he was taking Lee under his wing for presume one-on-one matches, and working with Sully after practice. One day he was getting into a melee on the court. Another day he was publicly taking the blame for defensive problems. The effort was there. The means were not clear.
I believed then, and I'm more convinced now that the early midseason showdowns with the Nets and the Clippers were the turning point of the season. The Celtics faced the Nets in the reunion with that team after the Rondo-Humphries throw down and handled them. Collins played center, doing a decent Perkins imitation, and this freed Garnett to play aggressively as a roaming, trapping big, and that in turn freed Rondo to play the aggressive ball-hawking ball he loves to play. The result was the kind of dominance we have come to expect from these Celtics. Everyone headed to a showdown with the league-leading Clippers, a day or two later, on the opposite coast, with tremendous enthusiasm. Our Celtics were finally back, and the Clips better watch out!
The result, sadly, was a nauseating beat-down administered to the Celitcs by the Clippers, leading into a devastating losing streak, in which the Celtics acted like a broken team. That Clippers game is seared into my memory as painfully as the Jarrett Jack game of the year before! For the first time, really, all season, Rondo played the game in the kind of funk that he finally seemed to have succeeded in putting out of his game. He seemed to be going through the motions on both ends of the floor, and Chris Paul looked every bit the Chris Paul of All World reputation. Even though there were times later in the year when the Celtics seemed to rally, largely because of Avery Bradley, I feel that the Clippers game was where the season was really lost.
And I remember one play in that game particularly vividly. It stood out to me at the time. I think it was halfway through the first quarter. As I recall the situation, the Clippers were starting to assert control over the game, and it was clear that someone on the Cs needed to step up, as the whole team seemed to be sleep walking. Someone - I can't remember who - clanked a desultory shot, and it looked like the Clips were headed into transition yet again, but something - someone - happened. Rondo darted in from nowhere, grabbed an offensive board, and in an instant, surveyed the court and found Jason Terry wide open at the three point line. Faster than a thought, the ball was in Terry's hands and he fired up a … brick. The Clips went into their delayed transition, and it seemed like a light had gone off inside Rondo.
That play puzzled me at the time, and I've pondered it since then. Did I see what I thought I saw? Did I see Rondo make that great play and then react so negatively to the outcome that he tuned out of the game? Or did I just imagine it? And if I didn't imagine it, why did he react that way?
I think I understand it now. There are two aspects to leadership. Kobe is someone who has talked openly about it. One half of leadership is friendship and love. The other half is challenge and discipline.
This last season, Rondo worked hard to master the friendship aspect of leadership. But now he has to find a way to master the other aspect - getting tough. I think he was furious with Terry for missing that wide open shot at a key moment. I think he was right to be furious with Terry, because this seemed to typify Terry's season. I have the impression that Terry and Pierce are too simpatico in the wrong ways. Terry needed to be disciplined by Rondo. But Rondo didn't know how to do it.
I think Rondo didn't know how to handle the situation, which is why he ended up funking out. How do you call a teammate to task, especially a veteran?
As rough as this last season was, it may bear fruit in the future. Rondo is one who figures out most problems, given time, and if Blakely is to be believed, the situation may already be changing, and Rondo may be acquiring the gravitas he needs to not only befriend his teammates, but to call them to task.
Rondo is the unquestioned leader of this team now, and going forward. Following the C's Game 6 loss, just about every player on the roster under the age of 30 said they were going to make plans at some point this summer to go see Rondo for workouts. A year ago, it was Rondo reaching out to his teammates. Now, it's the other way around. His ability to lead this new age of Celtics players, coupled with him elevating his regular season game to be more in line with his playoff performances, will be central to the C's efforts at returning to the pack of title contenders.
So there's hope, then! The humiliating loss to the Knicks may have gone a long way to make Rondo's case for him. I don't think anyone believes it would have gone that way had Rondo been there.