Rajon Rondo Playing Through Pain, Living A Cliche For One More Game

BOSTON, MA - MAY 07: Rajon Rondo #9 of the Boston Celtics heads down court after he scored on a break away in the second half against the Miami Heat in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Semifinals in the 2011 NBA Playoffs on May 7, 2011 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. The Boston Celtics defeated the Miami Heat 97-81. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Rajon Rondo is set to play Game 4 vs. the Heat, and it comes at the perfect time. Right when the idea of "mental toughness" is up for debate in NBA circles, Rajon Rondo's emerged as living proof. Plus: More on Phil Jackson, pizza and cookies, Rafael Nadal, and why everyone should be rooting for the Celtics tonight. Talking Points is a daily series that looks at some of the best stories in sports (and elsewhere). Read the archives here.

Rajon Rondo participated in the Celtics' shootaround in Boston today, and he'll likely play in Game 4 vs. the Heat tonight. If he does, it'll earn him lifetime immunity with Celtics fans, and rightfully so.

What Rondo did Saturday night was nothing short of incredible. Sure, he game was out of reach by the time he returned and Rondo didn't do much more than manage things for a Celtics team that was firmly in control through most of the fourth quarter. But still... HE PLAYED WITH ONE ARM.

Played PROFESSIONAL BASKETBALL with one arm. I don't care how much the media beats it into the ground, that's f'ing absurd. And sort of perfect that it all comes at a time when a lot of people are debating labels like "soft" and theorizing on cliches like "mental toughness."

The second discussion is being led over at ESPN's True Hoop, where Henry Abbott points to the Lakers, Celtics, and Spurs as examples that mental toughness might not exist (**Or that it's impossible to predict... Clarification below). "Maybe the playoffs were never anything but basketball," he writes. But what's interesting is that where Abbott uses those teams to prove his point, he ignores threads of each narrative that prove otherwise.

For instance.... He points to San Antonio's collapse as evidence that we gave the Spurs too much credit for their intangibles, but watching the Spurs-Grizzlies series, if anything, San Antonio's mental toughness was the only thing that made it interesting. Even when a loss looked inevitable, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker kept hitting absurd shots, and the Spurs refused to die. The Grizzlies didn't win because San Antonio folded mentally; they won because they were just, plain better.

As for the Lakers, Abbott draws this conclusion:

"Maybe who wins is really not about exciting war stuff like who has the resolve, but about boring basketball stuff like who closes out shooters, who gets the good rebounding position, who spaces the floor, moves the ball, runs the best pick-and-roll, and all that basketball stuff."

...Or maybe, beneath all the "boring basketball stuff" that Abbot highlights, the common thread is mental toughness. The teams that have it thrive, and the teams that don't are a step too late closing out Jason Terry, pointing fingers at Pau Gasol, and going down in flames on National TV.

All of which brings us back to Rondo, who most everyone is pointing to as the epitome of toughness right now. But what sets Rondo apart isn't some comic book invincibility. Playing through pain isn't really about physical toughness at all. It all comes back to the concept of mental toughness that some would say doesn't exist. It hinges on your ability to block out reality and forge ahead regardless. It's insane, sometimes, but the phenomenon's not imaginary.

For most players, a  dislocated elbow sets off an immediate reaction that says, "I'm done." But some guys, like Rondo, have a way of denying that reality, and detaching themselves from the pain. Adrenalin helps, too, and often times, it can come at the expense of a team or a player's career. It's not like this pathological rejection of reality is always a good thing, and it's often times not enough to win.

But it's definitely real, and Rondo's just the latest example. And if you want to talk about this concept in a team context, then Rondo's just a microcosm. The true barometer of mental toughness isn't how you thrive in the playoffs, but how you respond when thriving seems impossible.

The Lakers didn't have mental toughness this year, but that doesn't mean nobody else does.

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** UPDATE: Henry e-mailed me to clarify things. He's not arguing that mental toughness doesn't exist, but that predicting who will show it (and when) is a waste of time. That makes more sense, although I'd still say it's okay to use past examples to predict future behavior, the same way you'd use stats to guess how the Mavericks will play the Thunder.  The Lakers disappearing act may have surprised us, but it doesn't mean guessing at mental toughness is completely beside the point. It's just more alchemy than chemistry. (Which also makes it more fun!)

With that, the rest of Talking Points will be quick, because coffee's just not working today...

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Phil Jackson Goes Down As The Greatest. Jack McCallum has a nice look at Phil Jackson over at Sports Illustrated, who he calls the greatest coach in NBA history: 

And at the top sits Jackson, high on his ergonomic chair (designed to alleviate the various back and hip problems that began to plague him years ago), the elongated lord of the rings. And if you think you win 11 championships by rolling out the balls and writing "Michael Jordan" and "Kobe Bryant" on a lineup card, stop reading right now.

Ah, yes. That ridiculous chair. In addition to all his sarcastic press conferences and bemused smirks on the sidelines, I will always remember Phil Jackson and that gigantic chair...

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You Should Be Reading Digital Viking Every Week, but in case you're not, this past Friday, there was this:

You could tell your friends you've given up, or you can simply greet them at the door in your sweatsuit, put on a nice episode of Big Bang Theory, pour you and your friends a glass of Smirnoff Ice, and then roll out the white flag of life surrender: DiGiorno's Pizza and Cookies.

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Just... Incredible.

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That Manny Pacquiao Entrance Was Incredible.

And yep, Rafael Nadal Is Still Pretty Amazing.

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Finally, This Picture's Just The Best. Sorry, but it is. Via Twitter, don't even try and tell me you're rooting for the Miami Heat after seeing these pictures of the Celtics as kids. 

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Forget mental toughness... THE BOSTON CELTICS ARE JUST ADORABLE. 

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