“Rajon couldn’t do anything right. He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t draw. He couldn’t write. … And then one day, Rajon could speak! He could draw! He could write!”
Sorry for bastardizing “Leo the Late Bloomer,” one of my daughter’s favorite bedtime stories and a true classic. But I couldn’t help it. Not only has Rajon Rondo’s belated emergence been the most fascinating subplot of a storybook Celtics season, but he’s just like the character in that book. Like Leo, Rondo never spoke. Like Leo’s father, Celts fans spent an inordinate amount of time wondering when Rondo would “draw” (in this case, play with consistency) or “write” (in this case, bang home open jumpers). Leo had patient parents who believed in him; Rondo had veterans such as Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, role models who provided the confidence and toughness he desperately needed, eventually springing him from his on-court shell and altering the course of his career. We always hear about the value of young teams adding veterans, but after watching the effects over the course of an 82-game season, it’s probably impossible to exaggerrate the importance of polished, professional, competitive, proven veterans on young guys who don’t know what the hell they’re doing.
It’s the little things that made the trades for Garnett and Allen (and to a lesser extent, the pick-ups of Sam Cassell, James Posey and P.J. Brown) so successful and altered the careers of Rondo, Leon Powe, “Big Baby” Davis and Kendrick Perkins. They’re everyday moments that go beyond KG crouching over Powe after a dunk and happily punching him in the chest. For instance, my father read a story about Rondo watching last Saturday’s playoff games at Allen’s house and critiquing the point guards with him. Let’s say Seattle never traded Allen and the Celtics were coming off another 24-58 season. What do you think Rondo would have done Saturday? Would he have been planted in front of a plasma studying those games, or would he have been headed to the Bahamas or Vegas with some buddies? Think of young NBA players like “only-children” and it makes more sense — yeah, you can turn out fine when you’re an “only-child,” but it’s much easier if you have three older brothers giving you advice, looking out for you, molding you and believing in you.
From Boston’s game against Detroit on Dec.19 to Game 2 of the Atlanta series Wednesday — two home games that I attended — the difference in Rondo’s on-court demeanor was remarkable. Old Rondo carried himself like a little brother who didn’t want to screw things up for his big brothers, someone who had confidence in his athletic ability and little else. He never talked on the court, never bitched at the referees, never changed his expression and seemed like an odd fit for a particularly charismatic group of Celtics, somewhat of an enigma, the wild-card youngster for the season. When Chauncey Billups abused him in the second half of an eventual defeat, I remember walking back to my father’s house in 10-degree weather and deciding the Celtics couldn’t win a title with such a green point guard; they probably had a more realistic chance of prevailing in 2009. But Rondo kept getting better and better through the winter, and there was a pivotal moment in March when Rafer Alston got physical with him on the opening tip and Rondo belted him back, then defiantly stood his ground, ready to trade punches in a nationally televised road game. Watching from home, I remember thinking, “He made it! He’s all grown up!”
So, seeing Rondo thrive in Game 2 wasn’t a total surprise, although it’s a little weird seeing him control the tempo, bang home open jumpers, bark orders at teammates (at one point, he screamed at Pierce like an angry housewife), badly outplay Mike Bibby for the second straight game and openly relish the moment when the crowd chanted “Rondo’s better!” at Bibby (who drew their ire for calling them “bandwagon” fans after Game 1). Even more surprisingly, the stands were littered with No. 9 jerseys — not as many as No. 5, No. 20 or No. 34, but enough that you’d notice, nearly all of the No. 9s belonging to young kids and teenagers. His relatively sudden emergence as a fan favorite brings back memories of a pre-Eva Tony Parker, another late first-rounder who lucked into an ideal situation, improved mightily in his sophomore season and played a pivotal role for San Antonio’s 2003 team … only he couldn’t get it done every game, which made Speedy Claxton’s contributions so crucial that spring. (Remember, Parker was just shaky enough that the Spurs pulled out every stop to sign Jason Kidd that summer.) Playing for the same stakes on a similar team, Rondo is further ahead of the ’03 Parker, which gives you an indication of his potential and where he’s sitting already. Whether Sam Cassell has to pull a Speedy to save a few games remains to be seen.
Did I see any of this coming? Actually, yes. Rondo played so well in the 2006-07 preseason that I stupidly picked him for “Rookie of the Year,” bought a seat in the front row of the bandwagon, then broke three ribs when it careened off the Mass Pike on opening night. Poor Rondo didn’t have the most fun rookie campaign, struggling with nerves in the first few games, getting his minutes stupidly yanked around, landing in Iverson trade rumors for a few weeks, getting his minutes stupidly yanked around some more and finally earning extended playing time in the last weeks of a lost season. By the summer, it was clear the Celtics had something — they just didn’t know what — and when old friend Kevin McHale insisted on Rondo being included in the Garnett deal, Celtics GM Danny Ainge held his ground and refused. Nine months later, Rondo’s a potential All-Star and the X factor of this playoff run. Amazing … but not really.
Again, you can’t exaggerate the impact of veterans here, something that surfaced in Game 2 as a central theme — the Celtics were furious about a hard foul that briefly sent Pierce to the locker room in the first half, so they spent the second half banging bodies, doling out retaliatory clotheslines, talking trash and intimidating the young Hawks in every way possible. TCIKG (The Completely Insane Kevin Garnett) was leading the way, as always, and other than Al Horford (a tough cookie who’s going to be great), none of the young Hawks seemed interested in escalating things, getting each other’s backs, sticking up for themselves, responding or even making eye contact with TCIKG. If anything, they went the other direction — I think poor Marvin Williams peed his pants at one point. And if Rondo had been drafted by the Hawks two years ago, he would have been right there with them: Looking like a deer in the headlights, just waiting to get the hell out of Dodge.
Instead, Rajon/Leo was doing as much woofing, glaring and posing as everyone else. After one of the 47 times when two Celtics tag-teamed a Hawk (in this case, Horford) for a hard foul, right as Horford was stumbling away and rubbing his head, he made the mistake of nearly walking into Rondo and took an elbow for his troubles, followed by Rondo whirling around and staring him down. Who knew? I thought Rondo might make it through an entire career without uttering a word — now he’s strutting around like Clint Eastwood. Which brings me back to my point: Basketball careers might hinge on talent and desire, but circumstance plays a much bigger role than most people realize. Would James Worthy have become “Big Game James” if the Lakers had drafted Dominique Wilkins over him in 1982? What would have happened to Wilkins if he had played with Magic Johnson for his entire career? Would Robert Parish have made the NBA’s “50 at 50″ list if the Celtics hadn’t rescued him from the Warriors? What would have happened to Parker if the Spurs signed Kidd that summer? And so on and so on.
In Rondo’s case, there are two great “What ifs?”: What if the KG and Allen trades never happened? And what if Phoenix had just drafted him in 2006 instead of selling the pick? Would Rondo have been better off or worse off in Phoenix backing up Nash? We’ll never know, just like we’ll never know if he would have matured into a potential All-Star without Garnett and company. But we do know what we see, and here’s what we see: someone who has noticeably improved as a shooter and a leader, someone who has emerged as an elite defender, someone with a real chance to recreate the numbers from Fat Lever’s prime sooner than later. The best thing you could say about Rajon Rondo is he brings a lot of stuff to the table and doesn’t take much off it. The second best thing you could say is he’s lucky enough to have influential teammates sitting at that same table. Regardless, I’m giving him the “Leo the Late Bloomer” Award for Round 1.
And since we’ve had such a fascinating first week of playoff action, let’s hand out some other goodies:
The Andrea Zuckerman Award for “Least Compelling Subplot”
I love hoops as much as anyone and still can’t bring myself to watch the Magic-Raptors series. It’s like the NIT of the NBA playoffs. Does the winner even matter? They should call it “The NBA-TV Invitational” and give the winner a trophy that’s sculpted into the shape of Rick Kamla’s face.
The Groundhog Day Award
Remember that season when T-Mac was the best guy on an outclassed playoff team that needed a 35-10-10 from him every game to advance in Round 1, only he couldn’t quite do it, but everyone agreed he had a really good series that wasn’t quite good enough? Um … yeah.
The Brian Fantana Memorial “Hey, Champ, Maybe You Should Stop Talking For Awhile” Award
To Charles Barkley for declaring last weekend that Rasheed Wallace is the most talented player in the league and could have been the greatest player ever if he wanted it. Chuck Wagon, we love you … but you can’t possibly believe that, right? Rasheed couldn’t handle the responsibility of being great every night, true, but part of being great is that you’ve made a conscious choice to accept that everyday responsibility and live up to a different standard of pressure and expectations. It’s like a chicken/egg thing. If Vince Carter was wired like Michael Jordan, he would have been Michael Jordan. If Derrick Coleman was wired like Kevin Garnett, he would have been the greatest power forward ever. If Sam Jones was wired like Jerry West, he would have been the NBA logo instead of what he was — a top-50 player and one of the NBA’s memorably clutch shooters. Rasheed was much closer to the Sam Jones camp than the DC/Vince camp, but all of them had one thing in common: They didn’t totally want it. And that’s part of being great.
The His-Father-Was-The-District-Attorney Award for “Most Relentless Ad Campaign.”
I think Tyler Perry has broken my personal record for the ratio of “most commercials I’ve seen about someone over the years” to “fewest amount of minutes I’ve spent watching their TV show or movie.” Right now it’s like 11,000 hours to zero.
The Neil Diamond in “The Jazz Singer” Award for “Best Test of Someone’s Jewish Faith”
This goes to my friend Mike, a Philly fan trapped in Hollywood, who missed half of Passover seder because of the big Sixers comeback in Game 1. I don’t know what this means, but it sounds like a big deal. When Sixers fans are missing seder, you know the Philly sports scene is threatening to make a Lazarus-like comeback.
The C.T. Memorial “I Will Work You! WORK! YOU!” Award
To David West for his in-your-face manhandling of Dirk Nowitzki in Round 1, capped off by the same derisive cheek tap that Robert Conrad used to perfection after his concession speech to Gabe Kaplan in the first “Battle of the Network Stars.” It’s unclear if West was apologizing to Dirk or intimidating him, but we haven’t seen a German back off like that since the German army fled from Russia in the winter of ’44.
The Barry Sanders/Michael Jordan Award for “Guy You Should Never Wager Against Under Any Circumstances”
We can put LeBron in this group, right? I’m not saying you should wager on him every time, but it’s never a good idea to have a chunk of money against him. You know, if gambling were legal. It’s always unclear when he’s about to explode for a 39-12-14. My professional advice: Don’t wager against LeBron.
The Clay Buchholz Award for the “Player Most Desperately In Need of a Fu Manchu or a Goatee.”
All right, Dwight Howard — after putting up consecutive 20/20s in the playoffs and giving me Moses Malone flashbacks, I think it’s time you shaved your head and grew one of those Pedro Serrano-type fu manchus in time for your second-round date with Detroit. Also, stop smiling. You should be the scariest player in the league. We need to send you to KG Camp this summer where you can learn how to scowl, scream at the roof, pound your chest and cuss out other players while walking straight ahead without looking at them so the referees don’t notice.
The Dirty Pool Award for “Scummiest And Most Indefensible In-Game Move”
Name me one good/fun/useful thing that comes from hack-a-Shaq. You can’t. It’s not entertaining, it ruins the flow of the game, it’s dirty pool, and it sucks to watch. How have they not fixed this loophole? Really, it’s OK to bear-hug someone as they’re running up the court? Why can’t we give officials the leeway to say, “Look, you did that intentionally, even if we can’t technically prove it, and we are penalizing you for it”? I just hate it. I hate it. I really, really hate it. If I were coaching the Suns, I would be fouling Bowen and Duncan every time and turning it into an “Eff-You” free-throw contest so David Stern had to break away from exchanging late-night e-mails with Clay Bennett to act like a commissioner for 10 minutes and fix this unforgivable tainting of a fantastic series that could have been headed for the Pantheon if not for such a garbage turn of events. That’s not basketball. I can’t stop shaking my head.
(Two people I’m disappointed in: First, Gregg Popovich, the best coach in the league and someone who’s much, much better than this. Shame on you, Pop. And I mean that in the most condescending way possible. And second, Shaq for not telling the refs as well as the Spurs bench, “If this foofer Oberto tries to bear-hug me one more time, I’m just warning you right now, I’m going to run him over like a mack truck and send him to the hospital for the rest of the playoffs.” Come on, Shaq, you have four rings. Make a statement. Don’t put up with this crap. As you can tell, I am passionate about the evils of hack-a-Shaq.)
The Chris Wallace Award for “The Best Example From The Playoffs That Chris Wallace Might Be the Worst GM of All-Time”
(I don’t even need to write anything else.)
The Arthur Fonzarelli Putting-On-Water Skis Award for “Most Dangerous Sign That Someone Might Be Washed Up”
This goes to me for writing an entire magazine column about “Best possible NBA playoff matchups” and forgetting to include not just the Suns-Lakers series, but a Jazz-Celtics series that could have spawned an easy joke about “Celtic Pride” (the stinker movie, not the phrase). People sitting in dentists’ offices and tire shops around the country are going to pick up that magazine, skim that column and think I’m an idiot. Whereas, you guys already know I’m an idiot. Just remember, I’m an idiot.
The best point from my Suns-Lakers paragraph that was so stupidly deleted from the final column: If Phoenix played the Lakers in the West finals (and it doesn’t look good), that would be the first time a former superstar (in this case, Shaq) who is identified with one team over any other (in this case, the Lakers) ended up playing that team in the NBA Finals or conference finals. I can’t remember that happening in the NBA before — it’s like Trot Nixon playing against the Red Sox last October, multipled by 100. Of all the greats who played for multiple teams, Moses never went against Houston in the playoffs; Kareem never went against Milwaukee; Pippen never went against Chicago; Wilt never went against Philly … the only example I can recall is Julius Erving and Philly losing to the Nets in 1984, but they had switched from Long Island to Jersey by then. In my mind, Shaq battling the Lakers is a much bigger deal than Shaq competing against Kobe.
Speaking of Shaq …
The Chris Rock Award for “Most Glaring Negative In An Otherwise Tremendous Résumé”
You know how Chris Rock’s movies are jaw-droppingly bad, to the point it’s inconceivable that the same guy who gave us an influential HBO show and two Hall of Fame stand-up specials could make so many crappy movies, and this has to be mentioned any time he’s evaluated against other comics? I feel the same way about Shaq’s free-throw shooting. It’s the turd in the punch bowl of his career. Not only will he go down as one of the worst playoff free-throw shooters ever, but let the record show teams proactively fouled him as a tactical advantage and it worked to the point that he was removed from dozens of playoff games, sometimes even in the last two minutes. As powerful and unstoppable as he was in his prime, I just don’t see how anyone could rank him above Moses, Hakeem or Kareem because of one seemingly minor flaw that really wasn’t that minor.
The Heidi Montag Award for “Most Striking Difference in Somebody’s Face”
“This week on ‘The Closer,’ Brenda runs out of Botox right before a huge murder trial. Can she free her old plastic surgeon from prison to save the day? It’s an all-new episode of ‘The Closer’ on TNT!”
The Charles Barkley Award for “Most Awkward Running Subplot That Every TV Talking Head Will Be Terrified to Mention Except Possibly For Barkley If It’s After 1:30 in the Morning Following a TNT Doubleheader”
How ’bout the fact the Lakers-Nuggets series will bring Kobe to a Colorado hotel for four days? Hey now! Let’s just move on before David Stern presses a button and my laptop blows up.
The Raymond Babbit Award
To Ray Allen, the subject of a mesmerizing Jackie MacMullan piece about his monotonous routines and borderline obsessive/compulsive habits. (In retrospect, it’s a shame the Knicks didn’t trade for him last summer just for comedy’s sake — I could see a rattled Ray taking a leave of absence in January after Isiah Thomas moved the team’s shootaround for the fifth time that week.) You could make a case the Celtics have two crazy people on their team — Allen and Garnett — who would be thrown into a mental institution if they behaved in a grocery store like they did during the average NBA playoff game.
(By the way, that would be a funny “SNL” skit — TCIKG intensely shopping at a Whole Foods, grabbing the last box of Fruit Loops from the shelf and pounding his chest, woofing orders at the deli guy and chest-bumping him after a particular good cut of American cheese, then getting in a customer’s face who made the mistake of bringing 14 items into the “13 items or less” aisle. I continue to believe cameras should be following Garnett at all times.)
The Raphael Sbarge Award for “Strangest Appearance By A ‘That Guy’ Or A ‘That Girl’ in a Commercial That Runs All The Time During the Playoffs”
To Kima’s lesbian ex-girlfriend on “The Wire” who now plays a housewife in those commercials for the new Viera televisions. Am I the only one who feels like nobody from “The Wire” should ever be allowed to work again? I feel like all of the “Wire” characters were real people — I can’t handle seeing Kima’s ex or Murray the lawyer or Clay Davis in 30-second ads. I just can’t.
The Raja Bell/Jannero Pargo Award
I never understood why teams don’t pay attention to anonymous players thrust into the spotlight in big playoff games who come through — like Bell in the 2001 Finals with Philly, or Pargo in the 2006 playoffs with Chicago, both of whom were afterthoughts who eventually found homes on other playoff teams. If you prove your worth on a big stage, odds are you’re a good bet to become valuable. Eventually. Anyway, this award goes to Ronnie Price, better known as “The guy who backs up Deron Williams.” Every time he comes in, he plays well and makes at least one “Who is that guy?” play — if anything, he seems abnormally confident for a bench guy. Well, this might not sound like rocket science, but isn’t that someone you’d want on your team?
(Along these same lines: Did you see the way Houston’s Carl Landry reacted after blocking the key shot of Game 3? Now that’s a guy I want on my team. On a scale of 1 to 10, how awkward is it going to be when Yao is sitting in crunch-time during certain games next year for Scola and Landry? A 15? A 17? A 19?)
The “Little Miss Sunshine” Award
To the poor Hawks — their playoff run was like Violet’s family making it to California for the beauty pageant in the van with no breaks, only now the beauty contest has started and they’re going down in flames. Only, it’s not funny. This is awkward. By the way, we’re about seven more painful in-game interactions between Josh Smith and Mike Woodson from the “Best Damn Sports Show” counting down the “50 Most Painful Interactions Between Josh Smith and Mike Woodson.” We haven’t seen chemistry like this since Eminem and Elton John.
The Al Czervik Memorial “Ooooh, My Arm, I Think It’s Broken!” Award
To poor Jason Kidd, who got eviscerated by Chris Paul in Games 1 and 2 to the degree that he might have to pretend he’s injured before the Olympics so we can replace him with Danny Noonan. Which reminds me …
1. How dumb is it that we picked the Olympic team already? Kidd over Deron Williams? Really? That’s our final answer? Do we need to hire the guys who attacked Nancy Kerrigan to rectify this? Also, are we sure Mike Miller is getting the shooter’s spot over Ray Allen? Can we vote on this like it’s “American Idol”?
2. Given the 2008 Olympic team has Kobe in his prime, as well as Paul and LeBron during their superduperstar breakout seasons, doesn’t our ’08 USA Hoops Team have the highest ceiling since the ’92 Dream Team? That crunch-time lineup of Howard, LeBron, Paul, Melo and Kobe sounds three times more ridiculous than it did 12 months ago. Hey, speaking of Melo …
The Bernard King Award
To Melo for (what’s soon to be) another quick playoff exit, another dicey off-court incident and an inevitable summer of trade rumors. Remember, Bernard battled drug/alcohol demons and bounced around for his first few years before eventually landing with (cueing up the Marv Albert voice) … the New York Knickerbockers. It’s unclear how to define Melo’s problems beyond the whole “you can take the kid out of Baltimore, but you can’t take the Baltimore out of the kid” joke, but clearly something is going on, and during an era when younger stars are much more personable and squeaky-clean, Melo seems to be a throwback to the mid-’90s, back when young players still made dumb mistakes and were surrounded by a swollen entourage at all times.
I don’t see him spending his entire career in Denver, much less next season, and there’s a 98.7 percent chance he’ll become the focal point of every trade rumor this summer. For instance, what if the Grizzlies get the No. 2 pick and decide they want to take hometown kid Derrick Rose even though they already have three point guards on their roster. If you’re Denver, do you trade Melo for Mike Conley Jr., Hakim Warrick and Mike Miller, chop a few million off your payroll and hope Miller and Linas Kleiza can replace Melo’s numbers (which, by the way, they would)? If you’re Memphis, wouldn’t you sell tickets with Melo, Rose and Rudy Gay? In other words, aren’t those two teams a match? What if Minnesota got the No. 2 pick? If you’re Denver, would you offer Melo to the T-Wolves for that pick (plus expiring contracts) and take Rose? See where I’m going here? If the Nuggets can turn Melo into a point guard, cap space and/or something else, don’t they have to think about it?
(Of course, Melo can vanquish the previous two paragraphs by putting the Nuggets on his back and torching the Lakers for the next few games when they don’t have a single guy who can defend him. Let’s just say I’m not keeping my fingers crossed.)
The John Travolta Award for “Best and Most Improbable Comeback”
Andre Miller, where the hell have you been all these years? Maybe it took five full years for him to get the stink of the Clippers off him. Do you think playing for the Clippers is like getting exposed to plutonium?
The Bizarro Hack-A-Shaq Award for “My Favorite Moments of the Playoffs So Far”
I’d narrow it down to these three:
1. Suns-Spurs, Game 1: I honestly didn’t know what to do with myself after that game. I ended up taking one of my dogs out for a walk, and we just did a lap around my block like six times in a row before I realized we were going in circles. How do you even put that game into words? That might have been the first Round 1 game that was overqualified for ESPN Classic.
2. Celts-Hawks, Game 2: So, the Celts are beating up the Hawks, the crowd is totally into it, it’s a Wednesday night, everyone’s had a few and suddenly there’s a timeout and the Celtics cheerleaders come out for a routine. I don’t know if you’ve seen the Celtics cheerleaders, but the running joke about them is they make the cheerleaders from “The Replacements” look like timid schoolgirls by comparison. So, they’re doing their thing and everyone’s standing and watching them, only nobody’s really saying anything, and there’s just a weird vibe in the arena, and my buddy Bug and I couldn’t figure out exactly how to describe it … and then we figured it out: It was like being at a bachelor party for the part when two or more strippers are doing a “show” (for lack of a better word), only instead of being there with 20 people, we were there with 16,000.
(The NBA … it’s FANNNNNN-tastic! I love this game!)
3. Chris Paul vs. Kobe: Paul annihilates Dallas in Games 1 and 2 and Kobe stinks out the joint in Game 1, leading to the potential of some Nowitzki-like awkwardness of Kobe being named MVP during a playoff stretch when Paul is playing on a whole other level. So what happens? Kobe comes out for Game 2 and gives us one of the great Round 1 performances ever, one of the more dominant all-around games I can ever remember watching. These guys keep upping the stakes on each other. I’m just happy to be here.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. For every Simmons column, as well as podcasts, videos, favorite links and more, check out the revamped Sports Guy’s World.