We've reached that point of the season when Rajon Rondo's style of play is once again becoming a thing. Due to his slavish devotion to passing, he's either being selfishly unselfish or unselfishly selfish because he's racked up a stretch of double-digit numbers in the most subjective statistic in basketball. All of this is so very Rondo.
His streak of 37 straight games with at least 10 assists is currently tied with John Stockton for second all time and within hailing distance of Magic Johnson's record of 46 games. It's a bizarre achievement, to say the least. Stockton and Magic made their runs in the 80's and no one bothered to challenge it because, really, who even tries to do things like this? If nothing else, Rondo has made the assist cool again.
The streak has taken on a life of its own in Boston, and Rondo, as well as coach Doc Rivers, took some justified criticism by playing for the record in a blowout loss to the Pistons last week. Still, few things are as pedantically boring as self-appointed moralists appealing to some unwritten code of decorum over something as trifling as an arbitrary streak about round numbers. The Pistons move was lame, but not really worth the outrage.
To the extent that you think recording 10 assists in a single game is a big deal depends on your perspective. On the one hand, there is nothing cheaper in sports than a basketball assist. On the other hand, few acts on a basketball court are more infused with subjective meaning. Assists drive quants crazy because there is no set criteria for tabulating them and are often left to the whims of sympathetic stat counters. But in the framework of a team sport, an assist can't be a bad thing.
By its very nature, an assist makes someone else look good. It's often the correct play: move the ball, hit the open man, get others involved and so forth. Unless, of course, one gives up an open layup to pass backward to a teammate who then has to take a tougher shot, a Rondo specialty. In some ways, assists are a vanity project for Rondo, the equivalent of a LeBron James heat check three-pointer.
The assist streak is actually a red herring, an easy talking point that obscures a much larger picture. Rondo is having his best season at a time when the aging Celtics need him to be the best player on the team. As a general rule, Rondo hates talking about his numbers, which makes his obvious fascination with piling up assists even more peculiar. But look no further than the Celtics' top-10 offensive rating as proof that a Rondo-centric offense can be productive and efficient.
The real story here is his what he's doing when he doesn't pass. Rondo's True Shooting percentage is over 55 percent for the first time in his career. After a down year, he's once again scoring efficiently inside the restricted area, hitting 66 percent of his attempts at the rim. He's making 50 percent of his long jumpers, all while cutting his turnover rate in half (via HoopData). This is tremendously important for a team that struggles to get its own shot and relies almost exclusively on Rondo's creativity to get open looks.
Not everyone has caught on. The Magic flat-out refused to guard him in overtime of their game on Sunday and he sailed through the lane for an easy layup that sealed a Celtic victory. It should be noted that this was after he blew a three-on-none fast break by passing backward to Bass who then missed a dunk. Fortunately for him, Jason Terry was around to clean up the mess.
One of the inconvenient truths about Rondo's so-called breakout season in 2011-12 is that he shot worse than he has at any time since his rookie season. The Celtics' offense was also terrible, by far the worst of any serious playoff contender.
He was given credit for the C's second-half turnaround because of his gaudy assist totals -- see how much better he's making everyone! -- when the real key was Garnett's move to center and the team's subsequent defensive revival. Rondo received All-NBA votes and finished in the top 10 in MVP voting, but as an overall body of work, his 2011-12 was only marginally better than his lackluster 2010-11 and not up the standards he set earlier in his career when people weren't paying attention.
This year has been the true breakthrough, and not just because of his increased scoring. Take a look at where those assists are coming from. Yes, he racks up a bunch on long jumpers -- 4.5 a game per HoopData, almost twice as many as Kirk Hinrich's 2.5 -- but he's also getting 5.5 a game at the rim, which is also tops in the league. More than half of the Celtics' baskets from close range result from a Rondo pass or score, and here's where we remind you that the Celtics don't have a true low-post presence.
Streak or no streak, this is really his show. Per usual, Rondo seems to enjoy f-ing with us with his wink-wink nonchalance about the whole exercise. Leave it to the most inscrutable player in the league to let the press and everyone else obsess about a statistical anomaly that obscures his true intentions.