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Paul Flannery | January 19, 2014

Sunday Shootaround

This is Rajon Rondo's challenge

This is Rajon Rondo's challenge

Before we get to the quote, the surprise captaincy, the impossibly-angled layups, the passing lanes only he can see, and the missed three at the buzzer, even before we get to Rajon Rondo and what his return means to the Boston Celtics, we have to start with the reminisce. "Game 3," Kobe Bryant was saying. "That was a pressure cooker right there."

That was Kobe’s favorite memory of playing against the Celtics at the Garden. Game 3, 2010. NBA Finals. Series tied at a game apiece. Bryant said he didn’t sleep after Game 2 when the Celtics tied the series back in Los Angeles and there’s no reason to doubt him. Of course he didn’t sleep.

There was so much pressure and tension in that series that every game felt claustrophobic. The Lakers were defending champs, but the memories of 2008 were vivid when the Celtics won the title with a 39-point embarrassment in the final game. The Celtics, old as hell even in 2010, were due to be broken up at the end of the season until they somehow (and no one to this day is really sure how) pulled it together and made that improbable run through LeBron’s Cavs and Dwight’s Magic.

The Lakers would go on to win the series in seven games, but Game 3 was when it all came down. Lose that game and they were all but done. Up two with just under a minute to go, Derek Fisher grabbed a rebound and went the length of the floor for a three-point play to seal the win. "The and-one," Kobe said smiling at the memory.

It was so much fun then. Maybe fun is the wrong word, and it certainly wasn’t enjoyable for the rest of the league, but when the NBA’s two signature franchises were in their glory, all that bottled up rage and history came crashing down in two unforgettable Finals matchups. It wasn’t even four years ago but it feels like another lifetime.

They’re almost all gone now. Fisher, Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum and Ron Artest have all been scattered to the NBA winds. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen are in new homes. Phil Jackson is retired. Doc Rivers is in L.A., of all places.

Bryant was in street clothes, rehabbing from his latest injury when the Lakers came to Boston. That left Pau Gasol, diminished but still active and Rondo who was making his return after almost a year from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Around them were players like Ryan Kelly, Kendall Marshall and Phil Pressey. It was a Lakers-Celtics game in name only.

Someone asked Bryant if he could relate to what Rondo was about to go through as the lone remaining survivor in Boston. Kobe had been there once in 2004 when Phil left and Shaq was traded. He took his game to another level, playing with a barely-concealed ferocity that for maybe the first time in his career made him seem almost human.

"It’s frustrating," Bryant said. "But from what I understand he’s an asshole like me, so he’ll manage."

"That’s a great compliment coming from him," Rondo acknowledged later. "I feel the same way about him."

Real recognizes real and all that.

This is Rondo’s challenge now and we’re all waiting to see how he’ll react. Was he the fortunate beneficiary playing with those Hall of Fame talents, or will he focus his own abilities that straddle the line between brilliant and maddening to build his own distinct legacy? That’s the question that’s been brewing ever since that night in Atlanta last January when his knee gave out.

"There are certain guys that are wired to feed off of others and he did that really well," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "But I think he’s also wired that this is a great new opportunity. To be a leader, clearly a guy that as you look at the Boston Celtics the first name you hear is Rajon Rondo. If you look at the greatest competitors that’s the way they are. Like all of us, I think he appreciated those guys and loved playing with them. But like any competitor, he thinks that he’s going to do really well with whoever’s out there and help them do their best."

If anyone doubted his place in the new hierarchy, it was dispelled when PA man Eddie Palladino introduced Rondo as the captain. It was a surprise to everyone, including No. 9 who heard about it when everyone else did.

"I never told him," Stevens said. "I mean, maybe it’s something I should have done but I think it’s something you earn through your effort, through your leadership, through your involvement in the community, and all of those things. So, yeah, he earned his captaincy. He didn’t need to be named it by me."

That won’t save Rondo from the inevitable trade rumors that will swirl around him between now and the February deadline. Even before his return there were the usual rumblings from the league grapevine that Danny Ainge would look to deal Rondo to continue the rebuilding project. Don’t bet on it.

Sure, if someone were to offer a hefty ransom akin to the haul Ainge received from the Nets for Pierce and Garnett then he’d surely consider it. But does anyone really think that kind of deal is out there for a player returning from a major knee injury with only a year and half left on his contract who will be looking to get a max deal or something close to it when his contract expires? Ainge isn’t looking to trade Rondo simply to ensure a couple more ping pong balls in the lottery. He’s looking for value, and getting value for Rondo will be difficult.

"From what I understand he’s an asshole like me, so he’ll manage." -Kobe on Rondo

The Celtics are Rondo’s team now, along with Stevens', and there have been enough positive indications that this could be an interesting partnership. They both see the game through the prism of analytic minds and there is none of the fire and brimstone that Rondo had with Rivers. That was a relationship that served both well, but it had run its course. Rondo and Stevens are -- if not yet equals -- then partners on this new journey.

"Everything you hear about him being extremely intelligent is obvious," Stevens said. "The thing that I really like about him is how much thought he puts into things. You know a lot of intelligent people but they may not study as hard and he studies it hard."

As for the game, Rondo offered glimmers of his old self even in tightly-controlled five-minute increments. He started slowly, badly missing a couple of shots and losing the handle on a behind-the-back pass that never got past the behind-the-back stage. But in his second stint he pulled the Rondo move and flipped home a couple of impossible shots. He was feeling it again and the Garden crowd was pulsating like it did in the glory days.

Rondo ended the first half with eight points and no assists and finished the game with eight points and five assists. His passes were on point in the second half, threading the tight passing lanes with textbook accuracy.

What was also obvious even in these short bursts of activity, was the transition opportunities with players who can actually run with Rondo in the open court. That was perhaps the most encouraging development. At long last we may finally see Rondo is his element.

In what has been a season-long pattern, the Celtics blew another fourth quarter lead and after a chaotic series of events, Rondo had a three-point attempt that would have tied the game. His shot was off, and so were his legs, both of which were understandable.

In some ways it was the quintessential Celtics game this season. Play hard, even play well for extended stretches of the game, but find a way to lose at the end and creep ever lower in the standings and into lottery position. That’s a tough sell for Rondo, of course.

"I expect to win every night I compete," he said. "I think we have a lot of guys on the team that compete the same way I do. We’re going to be great."

For the Celtics to be great again, Ainge will have to turn all these accumulated assets into something tangible. He has as many as 17 draft picks over the next five years and a modicum of cap flexibility to replenish the roster. Even if Ainge strikes gold with some of his picks, he may never find someone like Rondo. To be truly great again, Rondo will have to play with that edge that Kobe and so many others admire about him. Basically, he’ll have to be an asshole.

OvertimeMore thoughts from the week that was

In the midst of the Toronto Raptors’ unexpected surge, head coach Dwane Casey raised the possibility that Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan should be considered for the All-Star game. Casey is even going a step further, telling the Toronto press that he’s lobbying coaches around the league to consider his guys.

Lowry gets no argument here. Probable starter Kyrie Irving and Washington’s John Wall have been considered likely choices, but Lowry’s play has been as good as either of them. DeRozan’s case is a tougher one to make because of a crowded field of wings, but it can be made (see below).

"It’s always a goal," DeRozan said after the Raptors shootaround on Wednesday in Boston. "Any NBA player that says that’s not a goal, then they’re lying. But that’s not something where I’m like, I’m going to out here and try and score 40 so I can make it. It’s more of a team thing. I go out here to be a leader and help this team win then all that will come by itself and I think that’s what’s happening."

That’s exactly what’s happening, which is amazing considering the Raptors were 6-12 and going nowhere in early December. Then Masai Ujiri traded Rudy Gay to the Kings for a bunch of useful veteran reserves who patched major holes in the team’s rotation. The deal also allowed second-year swingman Terrence Ross to take Gay’s spot in the lineup where his low usage, high efficiency 3-and-D game blended well with the other starters, and voila: The Raptors went 13-5 after the trade and assumed control of the wretched Atlantic Division.

"Any NBA player that says that’s not a goal, then they’re lying." -DeMar DeRozan on making the All-Star team

"We’re just trusting each other to be honest," DeRozan said. "We’re trusting what we’re doing on both ends. We don’t get down if something doesn’t go our way or if we’re not making shots. We understand not everything’s going to go our way, but one thing we can control is how hard we play. That’s what we live by every time we step on the court."

What’s been truly encouraging from the Raptors perspective is that the Gay trade also allowed Lowry and DeRozan to thrive. During that 18-game stretch, Lowry averaged 17 points, 5 rebounds and 8 assists, while DeRozan posted a 21-5-5 line. It’s that last part -- the improved passing -- that has people so excited about DeRozan’s future. The Raptors are 13-4 when he has more than four assists in a game.

"It just comes with experience, knowing the game, understanding situations," DeRozan said. "Understanding that sometimes you can be more of a threat outside of just scoring. I just want to make my teammates better and do whatever I can to make this team win."

Still just 24 years old, DeRozan has gradually improved each season he’s been in the league. His outside shot is still erratic, but he’s taking on more and more responsibility in the Raptors’ offense, getting to the free throw line more and embracing his role as playmaker.

"He’s gotten used to playing bigger minutes and being the go-to-guy, which takes a lot of physical and mental energy and he’s handled that tremendously," Casey said. "A lot of that has to do with natural maturity. He’s gotten better every year we’ve been here and it’s just fun to see his growth as a young man and as a player."

It’s interesting to consider where the Raptors are now that Ujiri has jettisoned Gay and Andrea Bargnani. The Andrew Wiggins lottery dream may be dying, but the Raps have three players 24 and younger who are all under long-term control in DeRozan, Ross and Jonas Valanciunas. Even unheralded glue guy Amir Johnson is only 26 years old. (Don’t say Bryan Colangelo never did anything right. The Valanciunas pick may wind being as good as any in this year’s draft class).

That’s a fine young core and one that can potentially be developed further in much the same way the Pacers were able to grow together. To be sure, DeRozan is not in Paul George’s class as a two-way player, but the parallels between the two teams are interesting. Both were built mainly through the draft, and while the Raps have not demonstrated the ability to play defense on Indy’s level for a full season, they’ve had the league’s fourth best defensive rating per since the Gay trade.

As for the All-Star nod, DeRozan is one of a crowded field of contenders. Assuming the fans’ vote gets Irving, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and George into the game as starters, there are at least a dozen players who are in the running for the reserve spots in the East.

My theoretical team also includes Lowry and Wall in the backcourt with Roy Hibbert, Chris Bosh and Joakim Noah in the frontcourt. Luol Deng, Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson should also get some consideration. Then there are the wing players, a list that includes DeRozan, Lance Stephenson, Arron Afflalo and Thaddeus Young.

Here’s a mini comparison. Counting stats are per-game averages.

DeRozan 21.3 4.5 3.6 .513 17.4
Afflalo 20.8 4.4 3.9 .586 18.4
Stephenson 13.7 6.6 5.1 .572 15.6
Young 17.6 6.6 1.9 .551 18.2

DeRozan is the best scorer, Afflalo is the best shooter, Stephenson is the superior playmaker and Young is the best two-way player of the bunch. Any of them would be fine selections and it’s possible that none of them will get to go to New Orleans. But DeRozan is certainly in the conversation, and that in and of itself is a positive development for him and the Raptors.

Viewers GuideWhat we'll be watching this week

MONDAY Pacers at Warriors

The Pacers’ crucial West Coast road trip pulls into the East Bay in a possible Finals preview. Well, why not? The Warriors have been terrific when healthy and the Pacers have been arguably the best team so far this season. As good as the Western Conference is, no team is without flaws. It would be a great matchup if it happens, even if it lacks the star power that say, the Heat and Thunder would bring to the table.

TUESDAY Blazers at Thunder

This is the end of the Blazers’ tough four-game road swing that includes the Texas teams. They will be playing their fourth game in five nights. So, perhaps it’s unfair to call this a referendum game, but we’ll do it anyway.

WEDNESDAY Thunder at Spurs

When Russell Westbrook went down with a knee injury it opened the door for third-year guard Reggie Jackson to get more playing time and run the first unit. Jackson has had his moments -- scoring 21 in a win over the Spurs and shredding the Celtics for 27 points -- but he’s been plagued by inconsistent shooting and turnovers. Still, the experience he’s getting now will be invaluable in the postseason, where OKC’s revamped second unit will be put to the test.

THURSDAY Lakers at Heat

While the best “power forward” conversation is usually reserved for the Western Conference’s big scorers -- Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin -- Miami’s Chris Bosh is generally left out of the discussion. That’s unfortunate because while Bosh doesn’t post the big numbers of his contemporaries, he’s arguably the most important of the bunch. The Heat are 13 points per 100 possessions better when Bosh is on the court than when he’s not per and he has an impact on the defensive end of the floor that the other three can’t match. Bosh has been cast as the third wheel for so long that it’s likely he’ll never receive the proper credit, but he’ll have to settle for the playoff glory that has eluded the others.

FRIDAY Grizzlies at Rockets

Since losing Marc Gasol to a knee injury the Grizzlies have mostly been an afterthought. They weren’t playing all that well even with their big man, and without him they slid into the deep recesses of playoff contention, bottoming out with a five-game losing streak in mid-December to drop to 10-15. Yet Memphis has gotten itself back on track thanks in part to Mike Conley, who is quietly having an All-Star season. Gasol is back and the Grizz look like a team ready to re-enter the playoff picture.

SATURDAY Bulls at Bobcats

It’s time to remember our favorite what were they thinking transaction currently on the books. In February of 2010, the Bulls traded the occasionally talented and usually enigmatic Tyrus Thomas to the Bobcats for Acie Law, Flip Murray and a future first round pick. Thomas helped the Bobcats get into the playoffs for the first and only time in franchise history where they were swept. The kitty cats then gave him a nice fat extension and after one relatively productive season he promptly fell apart and was amnestied this past summer. That future first rounder? It’s still on the books and is top-10 protected this season.

SUNDAY Nets at Celtics

This will be billed as Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett’s return to Boston, but don’t be fooled. KG was a fantastic player in Boston for a half-dozen years, but this will be Pierce’s day. Expect the Celtics to pull out all the stops. Hell, they might even retire his number during the game. (Note: they won’t actually do this, but I’d be willing to bet they thought about it.)

The ListNBA players in some made up category

A funny thing happened last Monday. The late NBA games weren’t very interesting and in Ames, Iowa, the legend of Joel Embiid was beginning to take flight. There was Embiid blocking shots, running the floor and making passes that young big men just shouldn’t be able to make, especially when they’ve only been playing the game for a few years. The much-hyped 2014 draft has gone through the spin cycle a few times, but here’s a look at how the consensus top four have fared this year with room for a personal favorite at No. 5.

1. Embiid: Courtesy of blogging great M. Haubs: Joel Embiid's per-36 min numbers: 17.9 pts, 12.2 reb, 2.3 ast, 4.3 blk, 1.5 stl, 68% FG. Frightening. Yeah, frightening’s a good word, but before we go all Hakeem on the young big man, let’s remember that the Dream was one of the very best to ever play the game. Still, because Embiid only started playing the game a few years ago his projection is, well, frightening.

2. Andrew Wiggins: The other Jayhawk was set up for failure because he’s simply not as good as LeBron James. Who is? Wiggins is averaging 15 points and 6 rebounds, which are respectable numbers and he does things in games that live up to the hype. But he’s not making a high percentage of outside shots and his game doesn’t always scream DOMINATION. Even in his 19 and 17 performance against Iowa State it was Embiid who stole the show.

3. Jabari Parker: The Duke forward has the best numbers -- 18.8 points, 7.3 rebounds and a True Shooting percentage around 60 percent -- but he’s struggled in ACC play making less than 33 percent from the floor. He’ll have ample opportunity to showcase his talent, and while Parker also has a long way to go on the defensive end, he’s firmly entrenched in the top three.

4. Julius Randle: Jonathan Tjarks’ piece on wingspan gave me sufficient pause on Randle’s true ceiling, but there’s no arguing with his production. He’s averaging a double-double and has enjoyed enough beastly moments to merit a high selection.

5. Aaron Gordon: He doesn’t have the offensive skills that the others do, but Gordon’s game is mainly focused on the defensive end. The ability to guard multiple positions is as much an in-demand talent as scoring points in the NBA. Gordon doesn’t have to do as much offensively on a deep Arizona team, but the feeling is that his skillset will translate quickly in the league.

NOTE: I have no idea how good Dante Exum is and I’m not going to pretend otherwise. Marcus Smart seems to be an eye-of-the-beholder player. Some teams will be wowed by his size, while others will be put off by his inefficient shooting.

ICYMIor In Case You Missed It

Worst. Top pick. Ever?

Drew Garrison explores the depths of Anthony Bennett’s rookie season that’s been even worse than Kwame Brown’s.

The sidekick

Speaking of high draft picks, Jonathan Tjarks checks in on Victor Oladipo’s progress in Orlando.

A new Rudy

Has Rudy Gay turned it around? Tom Ziller thinks he may have in The Hook.

Small trade, big win

Mark Deeks examines the Boston-Golden State-Miami swap that shifted various bench players, contracts and protected picks around. I agree with Deeks’ take that all teams came out nicely in the transaction and I wonder if that’s becoming a trend as front offices get smarter and savvier.

Un(der)sung heroes

Mike Prada presents his annual Film Room All-Stars with love for unsung players like Amir Johnson and Kyle Korver.

Say WhatRamblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs

"I do get jealous, I'm not gonna lie. I get jealous sometimes when I look over at KD and he's like 16-for-32 and then 14-for-34. ... Man." -- LeBron James discussing Kevin Durant with ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh. "I'm pretty sure -- I'm 100 percent sure -- that LeBron can do whatever he wants." -- Durant, responding to James via TNT’s David Aldridge.

Reaction: The #hottake version is that Bron is framing the MVP debate, but if you go back through history there is ample evidence of superstars checking on each other from afar. Larry Bird used to study Magic Johnson’s box scores and vice versa. Still, it’s worth pointing out that when Bron was in a position to take 32 shots a game in Cleveland he didn’t care for it.

"I'm getting more confident, but the ball doesn't help me. If the ball goes in, I will get more confident. But the ball doesn't go in." -- Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Reaction: Damn you ball. Don’t get our Giannis upset.

"Frankly speaking, there’s a lot of criticism that I am not in Brooklyn. But I just have a question for you: Do you really think you need me sitting in the arena to see a game? My friends, we are living in the 21st century. And in spite of the fact I have no computer, I still have a subscription for NBA games and, for me, it’s like enough to even have a look on the stats so you can understand what is going on." -- Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov.

Reaction: The Russian billionaire is a stats nerd. Who knew?

"I'm going to be honest. I'm not feeling comfortable out there. I'm not being myself and the team is noticing. I just have to be back where I was, be myself. I'm working on that. It's something that's missing. It's tough for me, too." -- Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio in a candid conversation with the AP’s Jon Krawczynski.

Reaction: Rubio’s struggles are clearly affecting him mentally, but it’s worth remembering that he’s been so beat up in his career that he could surpass his season high in minutes by the All-Star break. This feels like a crossroads moment for him.

"Let’s hurry up and take this picture before someone starts yelling at Mario." -- President Barack Obama during the Heat’s ceremonial visit to the White House.

Reaction: !!!!

This Week in GIFsfurther explanation unnecessary

Greg Oden

Here's to many more.

Glen Davis

More amazing: this shot came with 7 minutes left in the first quarter. (Just kidding.)

The self-buttslap

Marc Gasol is too impatient to wait for someone else to congratulate him.

Michael Malone

Oh, just the Kings' head coach screaming that ref Marc Davis is a "coward" a few times after a tight loss.

Designer: Josh Laincz | Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: Tom Ziller

About the Author

After covering everything from 8-man football in Idaho to city politics in Boston, Paul came to SB Nation in 2013 to write about the NBA. He developed the Sunday Shootaround column and profiled players such as Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, and Isaiah Thomas. When not in arenas, he can usually be found running somewhere.