Rajon Rondo was historically, triple-doubly magnificent, Kevin Garnett continued to rack up double-doubles from his new home at the center position, and Paul Pierce appeared carrying a torch that lit the TD Garden crowd alive and avoided a head-scratching, “how-on-earth-did-they-lose-that-game?” defeat.
The key wasn’t that each is capable of reaching into his tool bag and pulling out heroic achievements. We’ve seen that before. They key is that they are — still — capable of achieving those moments collectively, that the success of one Celtic is not necessarily harmful to his kinfolk.
Several times this year, Rondo has summoned the wings of an eagle and put forth statistics reminiscent of Magic Johnson on Johnson’s best days. But normally, Pierce remains silent in those contests, content to take a backseat while allowing Rondo to attack.
And when Pierce started burning the nets with jumpers and attacking the hoop in his typically methodical fashion, Rondo usually took a secondary role. Pierce’s best stretch this season came — coincidentally or not — when Rondo sat eight games due to injury and Pierce was forced into more of a burden.
There was a feeling that Rondo and Pierce no longer could co-exist, that Rondo had outgrown his role and perhaps Pierce wasn’t thrilled with that, or maybe it was just that Pierce hadn’t adjusted to Rondo’s burgeoning talents. Either way, the duo became a sea-saw — when one side went up, the other went down, and only for brief moments did they stand on level ground.
During the All-Star break, I began writing a piece on Boston’s mangled chemistry. I never published the piece because, well, they’ve won four games in a row since, and complaining about chemistry after a win seems rather foolish.
But the piece started like this:
In his 1859 book On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin published a theory called natural selection which proposed that species evolve over time, that one generation of chimpanzees, for example, is not quite the same as the next.
But what happens when species evolve during a single life span rather than from one generation to the next?
What happens when a pack of four basketball players changes enough to twist an entire team’s chemistry just four seasons after winning a championship, when one of the four players improves steadily while the others decline, when there’s still a little life left in the legs but parts just don’t seem to fit like they used to, when people clamor that Ubuntu was lost but perhaps what was lost is actually less psychological and more biological than that?
The Boston Celtics have changed drastically in four years. Nobody would argue that. But it’s the chemistry between Boston’s Fabulous Four that has taken the largest dive, that’s more complex and perplexing than any other change the Celtics have undergone.
We could argue how the Big Three feels about Rondo’s growth, and we would probably get nowhere. We can make guesses about their thoughts based on the bits we see and hear, but really, we have no idea whether Pierce, Garnett and Ray Allen embrace the blossoming of Rondo’s career and the marginalizing effect it has on their own roles in Boston’s offense. The Big Three say all the right things to the press — Rondo’s our best player, all that jazz — which makes it seem like they (at least begrudgingly) realize the torch has been passed. But we really have no idea whether (or how much) the crowning of this new king hurts the old carriers of the throne.
There is, however, an underlying basketball point we can argue: These Celtics once were equipped to run with Rondo, but that no longer seems the case.
To understand the complexity of the issue, we must examine Rondo’s evolution.
Once, Rondo played an entirely different role. He dribbled the basketball up court, found Pierce, and got the heck out of the way. In the fourth quarter of several close games during the 2008 playoff run, Rondo found himself on the bench in favor of Eddie House. It wasn’t that Doc Rivers failed to trust Rondo; he believed in him. But during certain situations at that point in his career, Rondo’s contributions simply weren’t enough to outweigh his flaws.
Since then, we’ve seen Rondo evolve into a menace, someone who isn’t the NBA’s best player, but might have the ability to impact a game in more ways than anyone else on planet earth. He threw himself onto the scene to stay during the 2009 playoffs, leaving a web of triple-doubles in his wake, destroying the Bulls before nearly leading the Celtics (without Kevin Garnett due to injury) past Orlando in round two. In those days, the surrounding Celtics were still young enough to maximize Rondo’s production, athletic enough that a synergy was created on the break. Rondo’s running led to easy transition buckets for Pierce. Rondo’s running led to open three for Allen. And when Garnett was in the lineup, Rondo’s running led to alley-oops. Rondo’s running was a gateway to extending the careers of the Big Three, because he helped each of them get cleaner looks without exerting so much effort.
Over time, Rondo’s growth continued. His brilliance became more cunning, his burst of speed remained just as stunning (forgive me if I just sounded like Walt Frazier), and Rondo only grew, which is natural for someone still in his mid-20s. But that growth came as his Celtics teammates slowed down, as Pierce, Allen and Garnett’s ability to run the break diminished. The synergy that once made everything easier for the Big Three ceased to exist, or at least lessened significantly. When was the last time Garnett caught an alley-oop after beating everyone down the floor? How often does Pierce run the wing in transition for an easy dunk? More often, Rondo sprints down the floor, cradling the ball in his massive fingers, swiveling his head to find an opening, but none of his teammates are there to catch his passes.
The plot still holds maddening inconsistencies– we get 18, 20 and 17 nights, but we also get occasional nights when Rondo is scoreless, when he does not seem to be engaged, when basketball seems to bore him — but for the most part, we can all agree with the story that Rondo has become Boston’s best player. Yet for the first half of the season, Rondo’s best nights rarely came when the Celtics churned. His career high of 35 points came in a loss to the lowly Pistons. He had 31 points and 13 assists while falling to the Knicks. He slapped 22 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds on the Heat, but the Celtics still suffered an ‘L.’ Even when the Celtics managed to prevail in a Rondo masterpiece, his 32 points, 15 assists and 10 rebounds only resulted in a four-point win against the Derrick Rose-less Chicago Bulls.
Star leads way, team loses. Star takes back seat, team wins. A lot of other factors obviously affected the equation, but nonetheless, the Celtics didn’t always perform their best on Rondo’s most breathtaking nights. Yet nothing was clarified in those losses. They just led to questions: Was it his fault? Can we blame Rondo? Do his other star teammates resent his ascent? Is the locker room fractured by jealousy, dislike or something else? Do the on-court problems stem from other issues?
The maddening lack of offensive chemistry is a basketball matter at heart, I would argue, rather than a case of locker room discord. The Celtics are becoming Rondo’s team — have become Rondo’s team — but the roster is ill-equipped to maximize his contributions. Doc Rivers has a slow-it-down roster with one of the league’s finest speed-it-up point guards, and the results include nights when Rondo runs and his teammates can’t keep up, nights when Rondo slows the pace and Pierce, Garnett and Allen lead the way.
Yet yesterday’s performance against New York painted a different picture, an illustration of teamwork and wide-spread contributions, an array of teammates who were aggressive and attacking and unselfish all at the same time, who didn’t take turns individually but rather co-existed as a single unit. The Celtics weren’t perfect against New York, but they demonstrated the ability to function with all their parts working at once, a feat that has been all too rare this season.
Synergy is still possible. I find that exciting.
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