BOSTON -- On the morning of Game 4 of the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinal series between the Celtics and Cavaliers, everyone was trying to make sense of what the Celtics were going to do next. Not in the series that was all but wrapped up after Cleveland came into the Garden and won Game 3 by 29 points to go up 2-1, but in an uncertain future that was wide open with possibilities.
The Celtics had started the year winning 23 of their first 28 games and then played .500 basketball after Christmas. That series against Cleveland was the culmination of a slow deterioration that had taken months to unwind. Ray Allen and Paul Pierce were going to be free agents. Kevin Garnett looked like a shell of himself. There were whispers that Doc Rivers would leave along with his Big Three.
They had done what they set out to do, which was win a championship, and now that age and injury had taken hold, it was time to plot a new course. One that would undoubtedly be centered around their young All-Star point guard.
The atmosphere that afternoon was desperate. The Celtics’ veterans battled foul trouble throughout and leads came and went with each momentum swing. In the end there was Rajon Rondo, who scored 29 points, grabbed 18 rebounds and handed out 13 assists, making him responsible for more than half the C’s 97 points. It was a postseason tour de force that statistically had only been equaled by Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson, but the ramifications went far deeper than some random historical footnote.
The Celtics won that game and then the next five. They ended LeBron James’ initial run in Cleveland and finished Orlando’s reign atop the Eastern Conference with Dwight Howard. In vanquishing their two biggest conference rivals, Rondo extended the Celtics’ timeframe by an additional three years.
There would be more highlight performances, and arguably even better individual efforts, but there has never been a more important Rondo game than that one against Cleveland. Afterward, there were countless columns about how this was now Rondo’s team, which was never really true. Narratives and reality have always danced awkwardly around him.
Trying to make sense of the conflicting arcs over the years was like anticipating where he would go on the fast break. You might think you had a handle on it, and then he would fake everyone out with a play you’ve never seen before. When others were referring to him as the team’s little brother, his peers understood that his talent was essential. When they said it was his turn, he demurred.
He could be brilliant and captivating, yet he was also frustrating, easily the most perplexing athlete I’ve ever covered. His persona, at times charming and eccentric, at others aloof and boorish, only made things more complex. It was always personal with Rondo and one had to declare their allegiance. To his detractors, he was a selfish player who hid his flaws behind inflated assist totals, and to his defenders he was a misunderstood genius who couldn’t be properly explained by either objective or subjective data. In between lay a huge chasm that too often went unexplored.
If he wanted to, Rondo could have owned the city. His sarcastic sense of humor and irrational hatred for anyone in an opposing uniform made him the quintessential Masshole. His analytical intelligence and off-beat game were right at home on the other side of the Charles River with its institutes of higher learning. He was the left and right side of Boston’s brain, a city that can be both progressive and regressive; one that laughs behind its back at hidebound traditions just as it continues to make way for them in the entrenched corridors of power.
Rondo could have been a player for the "New Boston," which continues to evolve almost in spite of itself some two decades after the term first appeared. Maybe it’s asking too much of an athlete who’s not even from here, but Rondo could have bridged that gap between the old and new. No less an authority than Bob Cousy claimed him immediately as a perfect Celtic in ways that transcended the myth, yet Rondo was no traditionalist and his post-modern game didn’t always translate for a mass audience.
He was informally put in charge after his amazing 2012 playoff run. Allen left, Pierce and Garnett stepped aside cautiously and Rivers told him it was his time, but the experiment failed to gain traction. Even before Rondo tore his ACL, the Celtics were going nowhere. Pierce and KG took up their old roles and for a brief time the C’s became dangerous again, exposing all the flaws of a lead guard who could create anything out of nothing but couldn’t always finish.
Dallas coach Rick Carlisle, who played with Boston during the glory days of the ‘80s, had an apt comparison. "I played with Dennis Johnson for three years and he was one of the greatest players I’ve ever been around," Carlisle said. "He had the ability to turn it up defensively in big moments. Rondo has that same sort of sixth sense. Rondo’s an original."
Like D.J., Rondo could be difficult. Like D.J., Rondo played his best in big moments. It took a team full of huge talents and even larger personalities to bring out the best in Johnson, just as it has for Rondo. If that’s his legacy here, it’s a good one. Maybe not a great one, or even a transcendent one, but the Celtics wouldn’t have accomplished what they did without him and when he was at his best there was nothing like him.
The last few years have been a marriage of convenience and an ill-fitting one at at that. Playing for a young coach with inexperienced teammates, the latter-day C’s were often aimless and Rondo has to take his share of the burden for it.
"Well, I haven't played defense in a couple of years, you know I've been able to hide a lot with Avery Bradley on the ball," Rondo said casually after the Mavs’ shootaround. "He helped out, the young guy. But here, they expect me to play defense. In the West, if you don't play defense you'll get embarrassed every night at the point guard position. So I took it as a challenge to myself."
Was he joking? One can never be sure of his intentions, but Rondo’s quote calls to mind an old Bob Dylan line: "Don’t ask me nothing about nothing, I might just tell you the truth."
While he kept his innermost thoughts shrouded behind his stone-faced visage, Rondo never learned how to fake it, which was odd for a player who thrives on feints and misdirection. It was obvious when he wasn’t engaged and just as clear when he was in it to the end.
There again, that quality was both heralded and derided by the Greek chorus that comes with playing in Boston. The notion that Rondo plays his best in big games was used both against him and in support of his time here. As if intent on leaving the debate open for all time, his season-high 29 points against the Celtics illustrated the absence of such moments in recent years.
Rondo received a loud ovation during pregame introductions, as one would expect, and his tribute video was expertly produced. There was genuine emotion between both the crowd and the player. Yet, it still felt somewhat hollow. You could fill 90 minutes of jaw-dropping passes and spellbinding Rondo plays into a highlight video, let alone 90 seconds between timeouts. But how do you capture that feeling that existed in the tense moments of Game 4 when careers and legacies were on the line and the best player on the floor was the guy with his headband turned upside down?
Maybe someday Rondo’s true impact will be appreciated in full by all sides. Time has a way of softening the rough edges and allowing memories to approach an acceptable middle ground. Perhaps, however, it’s better that he’s remembered as he was, with all the brilliant flaws and weird dichotomies that defined him in his day.