Celtics-Cavs: Rehabilitating Rondo

So it goes with the Celtics. They turned in their worst road performance of the entire season and are now faced with the “gorilla on our backs,” as Paul Pierce called it. In other words, the notion that they can’t win on the road. (Look, there’s no way the Celtics can be that bad again tonight, nor is it particularly likely that Delonte West and Joe Smith will combine to shoot 14-for-19 again.)

But,as the C’s head into Game 4, one person is more important than any other: Rajon Rondo.

Forget Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett for a moment. Rondo is the key to everything the Celtics are able to do offensively, and right now he is lost. It starts on the defensive end. When the Celtics are at their best, Rondo initiates pressure in the backcourt and forces the opposition to hurry into their sets. It’s a hell of a lot harder for the Cavs to score against the Celtics in 17 seconds than it is in 23.

But if you’re not scoring, you can’t press. And if you can’t press, you can’t set up that quasi-zone defense that Garnett and Kendrick Perkins play so well. And that’s when the Celtics need someone to initiate the offense. The only one who can do that is Rondo.

Too often on Saturday, Rondo passively brought the ball up the floor and the Celtics settled into an isolation offense with either Pierce or Garnett forced to make something happen. Rondo was truly awful in the first half, and when he tried to get more aggressive to open the third quarter, he wound up digging himself into a hole. It was an all-around abysmal performance, and then he got buried.

Sam Cassell is a tough guy. He is positively unafraid to shoot (as we know), but when the shots aren’t falling, and they haven’t on the road (3-for-21), Cassell offers little to the effort. Cassell has become Doc Rivers’ security blanket, and one has to wonder if that’s taking a toll on Rondo’s psyche. Doc did call on Eddie House late in the fourth quarter, but you will notice, that it wasn’t Cassell’s minutes that House took, it was Rondo’s.

Rondo is an absolutely unflappable kid. He was thrust into a position of leadership and responsibility on the court with three future Hall of Famers, and has performed better than anyone not named Rajon Rondo expected. As great as Cassell has been in his career, and at times in the playoffs—they don’t win Game 1 of this series without him—the Celtics will not win a championship with Cassell playing the majority of the minutes at the point.

They need Rondo. The Cavs have figured that if they leave Rondo alone, he would rather not take the 20-foot jump shot. Of course he needs to knock some of those down. More importantly, he needs to simply take it, and if he misses, he needs to take it again. It would also probably help if he didn’t have to look over his shoulder.