For me, it was the most exciting moment of the season to date.
It wasn’t a dunk, a block or a brilliant pass. And it didn’t involve the Miami Heat.
The Celtics were down by two, there were five seconds on the clock and Rajon Rondo was all alone at the 3-point line. None of his teammates was open and the lane was clogged. Rondo had no choice but to take the shot.
Rondo, as brilliant a playmaker as he is, would rather not shoot from beyond 15 feet. He’s now taken five threes this season, and they’ve all come with less than five seconds on the shot or game clock.
Rondo’s jumper is the one flaw in his game and it’s the reason why teams leave him alone on the perimeter. It’s a pick-your-poison situation for opposing coaches though, because soft defense allows him to pick the defense apart with his passing and is the reason he’s averaging 14.8 assists this season.
Through Monday, Rondo is one of only two players who have played at least 100 minutes this season who have more assists than points. He has 29 more assists than points, while the Mavs’ Jason Kidd has 19 more.
The last play in Dallas last night was sagging defense to the extreme, because there was actually no one guarding Rondo (soft or otherwise) as he drifted toward the top of the key. Normally, when a team is up by two on a final possession, they defend the 3-point line aggressively to avoid the worst-case scenario. Here, the Mavs were seemingly happy to put their fate in Rondo’s hands.
From the Celtics’ perspective, it looked like a broken play, but it really wasn’t. Paul Pierce set a screen for Rondo at the elbow in order to get a switch, and the Mavs obliged, with Shawn Marion picking up Rondo and Kidd taking Pierce. At that point, Pierce vacates to the other side and Rondo is isolated with Marion on the right wing. But Marion sags off and Rondo can’t get past him.
By the way, this is an advantage that the Mavs have defensively. They have a versatile wing like Marion who can defend four positions (one through four) and they have Kidd, who is very good at defending big guards and small forwards. So they are able to deal with the 1-3 switch better than any team in the league. They also have a long and athletic five in Tyson Chandler, who can move quickly to help at the rim.
At that point, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett come toward Rondo to set a staggered screen at the right elbow, and Marion looks to switch onto Allen. But Jason Terry doesn’t want to give Allen any space and stays with the shooter. So no one’s guarding Rondo, but Dirk Nowitzki does a good job of hedging off of Garnett’s screen and cutting off the lane toward the basket.
Rondo then drifts toward the top of the key with Marion still hung up on Allen’s screen. Nowitzki goes back to Garnett, but the lane is now cut off by Pierce (who flashes to the left elbow) and Kidd. Pierce seals Kidd behind him, Marion just drifts toward the basket, and Rondo is left all alone with only one choice.
The result of the play? Frankly, it didn’t matter to me. The fun was in seeing the moment develop, that Rondo had no choice but to take the shot he never wants to take, and that both teams were willing to live with the consequences.
Gary Washburn of The Boston Globe saw the moment as a step forward for Rondo…
Last night, he fell short in his bid to convert a rare game-winner, but the victory here is in the fortitude to try. No one uttered a word of criticism, only encouragement. The training wheels are officially off.
“He’s wide open,” forward Paul Pierce said. “He was open two or three seconds before he even took it. We were begging him to shoot it. Hey, we’ll take that, a wide open look. Rondo, he’s showed he can make those shots, especially under pressure situations. I take it. I told him after the game, I’ll take that shot.”
There is still stubbornness in Rondo, a refusal to acknowledge his jumper is a weakness. That teams are blatantly inviting him to shoot is a sign of disrespect for his perimeter game. Teammate Jermaine O’Neal said recently that once Rondo develops a jumper, much like what has been said about Derrick Rose and about Jason Kidd 10 years ago, his game will be impeccable.
Rondo would like to think it’s impeccable now. The white elephant in his mental living room is that darn jumper. It’s improving, but it’s not yet there. It’s there in practice. It has been there during stretches this season, but until he knocks it down with consistency, he will be left alone.