Tuesday, August 2, 2011

True Grit, by Khalid Salaam

The Boston Celtics are the class of the Eastern Conference and—at press time, winning at an .833 percent clip—arguably the best team in the entire League. All of their players are playing at 2010 Playoffs peak levels; a couple are even hovering above that. It’s impressive and certainly feasible that they will get four players into the All-Star Game. Where is this closing window we keep hearing about? It’s supposed to be shutting soon, but right now this team is savaging its opponents. Both Ray Allen and Paul Pierce are having career-best shooting years (PDouble is hitting 50 percent of his shots from the field and Allen 49 percent); Kevin Garnett has overcome his recent injures and is playing with ’07-level athleticism; Glen Davis is in the early running for the Sixth Man of the Year award; and Shaquille O’Neal is proving that there’s more left in his tank after all. So who’s responsible for this upkeep?

The Celtics are on national TV seemingly every week, and their highlights are always prominently shown. Sometimes highlights lie—don’t tell the whole story of how impactful a player is during an entire game. But when you catch what Rajon Rondo is doing, it’s evident that his play is what makes this thing go. This is the best pick-and-roll defending team in the L, the best help-defense in the League and the best one-on-one defensive team, too. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen are all tremendous, but Rondo is the most essential player on the team, and arguably the best point guard in the game.

“For this team, I’m the best for this role,” explains Rondo, days before he sprained an ankle that cost him a few games. “Obviously, they don’t need me to score the ball, even though I can make shots. Other point guards take shots because that’s their job. My job is to get guys open looks, make it easy for guys and run this system.”

To understand Rondo’s defensive approach, think of him as an NFL free safety who has specific duties but also the ability to freelance. He hovers near his man but is always moving, making himself available for help when needed. It’s a cerebral style of play that allows Rondo to, at times, dominate entire games.

“I’ve played with some really good PGs,” says Allen. “Terrell Brandon was one of the best guards in the League at the time, Sam Cassell was a great player, an All-Star. The difference is those two guys are scorers. Rondo’s not a scorer. He’s a playmaker. He’s a better athlete than either of those guys. He affects the game more all-around then any guard I’ve ever played with.”

It’s unique, a style of PG play that didn’t exist before. Rondo is the Ol’ Dirty Bastard of the NBA—there is no father to his style. It’s not smooth, and you won’t hear words like “effortless” describing Rondo. It’s not really flashy, nor is it pedestrian. It’s something else. Surgical almost. He plays with speed and balance, a cunning style that works in both fast break and half-court situations. He’s a throwback without having an old-school game. At press time, his 13.8 assists per game leads the League, and he’s already had five games this season where he posted 17 or more assists. Meanwhile, his per-game scoring average is a relatively modest 11.2, albeit on 53 percent shooting from the field and accompanied by 4.5 rpg and 2.4 spg. Free throws are a different story.

Remember, we’re in the era of de facto combo guards. All of the top PGs—Rose, Westbrook, Paul, Williams—are deft scorers capable of 30-plus on a good night. After Rondo, Steve Nash is the only player averaging at least 10 assists, and he’s over three assists back from Rondo’s pace. The John Stockton pom-pom shorts era, where four or five guys routinely averaged double-digit assists, seems as much a relic as two-parent homes.

“Things have changed a lot. When I came into the League, it was all about the pass-first point guard, and that’s why I had so many problems with Rick Pitino, because I was a scorer,” says Nuggets point man Chauncey Billups. “These days, guys who don’t score are rare. Everybody is a scoring guard now, and they affect the game by getting buckets. You look around and those are the best guys out there. Except for Rondo, he’s the exception to the rule. He does so many things that you can’t just play him one way, he’s just a special player.”

None of this is to say he came out of nowhere. Rondo did his thing at Eastern HS in Louisville for three years, then went on to prep power Oak Hill Academy and the University of Kentucky. Playing at a high-visibility program like UK gave him confidence, but it was playing well for the US in the 2005 FIBA U-21 World Championship that gave him the boost he needed to apply for the NBA Draft. After a nondescript rookie season in ’06-07, Rondo went primetime the next season when the Big Three was assembled.

You know the rest of the story—a pup on a team of alpha dogs who comes through and helps them win a ring. Improves every year, enough to make the All-Star Game last year and grab a couple of triple-doubles in the Playoffs. Now he’s easily one of the all-around best players in the League. “It’s a complete change from ’08,” Rondo says. “I’m a more serious student of the game, and my overall player development is improved. I have to give credit to a lot of guys who helped me mature.”

Chief among those he credits is head coach Doc Rivers, whose “man’s man” coaching style stresses intelligence. As a former floor leader himself, Rivers didn’t take any short cuts when it came to Rondo’s learning curve.

“Coach played 12, 13 years and he’s been coaching almost as long, and with all the experience he has to offer, I almost don’t have a choice but to listen to him,” Rondo says. “He’s been an All-Star in his career and he’s a great X-and-O coach. He draws up a lot of plays out of time-outs and we do a great job of executing them. Obviously, because he was a point guard, that’s why he was so hard on me. It was a little bit of everything. There wasn’t any one thing in particular that he focused on, but there was always something. No matter how good I played, he stayed on me to keep me humble and keep me consistent.”

During the Celtics championship run in ’08, KG was the defensive catalyst, but now he shares that distinction with Rondo. As soon as an opponent lets go of the ball and it gets near the other player—BOOM! Rondo steps in front. Or if an opponent does get the rock in the post or the elbow, he comes from his blind side and strips him. He’ll also harass man-to-man. It doesn’t seem to matter to him.

“The first thing I look at is what play the other point guard is calling. (Assistant) Coach (Lawrence) Frank does a great job of going over scouting reports, so I pretty much know what the other players are doing. There’s only a few plays the teams in the NBA run differently, pretty much it’s the same sets,” he explains. “So I do a great job picking out the plays and knowing how to get into the passing lanes. I try to call out plays so my teammates can have an advantage and we can make plays and get stops on the defensive end. It depends on the match-up—if a point guard has a high-scoring wing man, then he’s not gonna take many shots. He’ll defer to that guy so I’ll gamble more. But you gotta respect your opponent, so I pick and choose the right times, because if I miss, then I’ll hear it from Coach. So it’s a thin line.”

Rondo still doesn’t have a legit jumper, so teams occasionally slump off him to focus on other players. He compensates by getting to the paint, where his skill-set amplifies to include a bunch of trick plays. Rondo’s definitely athletic, but he’s not a freak-level athlete, so his game is mostly mental. While discussing the particulars of his offensive game, we both come to the comical conclusion that other players just aren’t watching enough tape of him.

“Yeah, its all the same moves. I know that one move in particular (the fake-one-way-scoop-lay-up-the-other-way), I don’t know why they fall for it each time,” he says. “I don’t know if I do a great job of selling it, but they should know by now that when I get down there on the baseline, I’ma do the same things. I created all these crazy shots on my own. In college I could play with the bigs, but here in the League, every guy has a 40-inch vertical and is 6-10 so I have to use trick shots.”

The system the Celtics run doesn’t have an iconic name like the Triangle Offense, but that shouldn’t make it any less memorable. It’s based on passing—interior and perimeter—and focuses not only on getting guys open shots but on getting preferred location open shots. You rarely see the Celtics players taking forced shots from uncomfortable spots on the floor. The ability to differentiate who gets the ball and when they get it is what separates Rondo from other point guards.

Says Rajon happily, “No matter what I’m going with, who’s open and what shot is available, Ray can pretty much shoot from anywhere. Paul likes to get his feet set but he can shoot from anywhere, too. He probably has more confidence shooting the three now then ever. I also look for Kevin and Shaq in the post. The most exciting part of this is when guys have it going and I can just sit back and watch them. When KG is catching lobs and guys are shooting threes, its fun.”

Swagger is the most overused word in sports today. Sportswriters have made that word impotent by using it to describe every guy who has an interesting haircut. The Celtics, however, have swagger for days. Four first-ballot Hall of Famers, plus known guys like Nate Robinson and Kendrick Perkins (though injured, he is still very much a part of this team) give Boston a high level of confidence. They talk smack amongst themselves, take bows on opposing teams’ courts and still remind people that their starting five has still never lost a Playoff series. If you’re going to be the point guard on this team, you’re going to have to tell some high-minded men “no,” and often. Rondo is just as competitive but much more reserved, and his Teddy Roosevelt-like Big Stick mentality is crucial to running a team like this.

“I want those guys to have fun playing with me and feel relaxed. I want to add a couple of years to their careers so they don’t have to take 29 shots in a game and can focus on being more efficient,” he says. “People think it’s hard deciding who to throw it to, but what helps me is that everybody is so unselfish. If they were selfish guys, then it would be much more challenging. Guys make sacrifices and, for the most part, they never complain. Obviously all the guys want the ball in crunch time and, really, any great player wants the ball then. But it’s up to me to figure it out.”

These are magnificent days for late-night conversations about NBA point guards. So at the end of the interview, I drop the best PG in the League question on him. To his credit, he accepts the challenge. In fact, he gets excited.

“If you need someone to run the show, then I’m the best in the League,” he says. “There are a lot of good point guards in this League and there might be other guys who can play with this team, I don’t know. But if you ask the guys here who they want to play with, I’m sure they’ll say me. If you ask Kevin, Ray…Look, I don’t want to put words in guys’ mouths, but I’m sure they’ll say me.”

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