In Defense of Rajon Rondo

It seems totally crazy that on the day after his virtuoso, 18 point, 20 assist, 17 rebound performance there would be any need to defend Rajon Rondo. Nobody’s had a game like that since 1989, when Magic Johnson posted 24 points, 17 assists and 17 rebounds. It was Rondo’s second triple-double in three games, fourth of the season, and 17th of his career.

And yet, even as the game was going on, Cedric Maxwell, the Celtics’ radio play-by-play man on WEEI, was lamenting that it was games like yesterday’s against New York that made people wonder why Rondo couldn’t be more consistently excellent. Jackie McMullan picked up the thread on, noting that of those 17 career triple-doubles Rondo has registered, 13 have been in nationally televised games. In other words, Rondo only brings it when he wants to. Of course, that there have been so many trade rumors involving Rondo adds fuel to all this fire.

McMullan’s column does raise many good points: what are rebounds if not effort, after all? But really, you don’t expect lots of rebounds from a 6’1″ point guard anyway. What we really care about with Rondo is how he scores and, most importantly, runs the offense and sets up his teammates. Admittedly, that’s been inconsistent.

But allow me to offer a theory for why we see a different Rondo in big games and the playoffs: the NBA season is long (even this lockout shortened one) and, when he’s at his most effective — when he’s attacking the basket — Rondo gets physically abused. Really, his shaky jump shot requires him to drive to make things happen. But despite being built like a loaded spring, Rondo’s also a relatively slight guy. When he goes to the basket, he gets hammered by the big fellas down low. A hard foul he took against Toronto in January already caused him to miss eight games this year. It feels like at least once a night, he gets knocked down hard and has to take a minute to collect himself before getting back up. My guess is the reason we don’t see the great, attacking Rondo on a more regular basis is some combination of wise self-preservation and a simple desire to not get drilled.

As McMullan says, he certainly has a reputation for being stubborn and moody. Coach Doc Rivers and Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge have basically said as much over the years. Clearly, there’s something to that. Look, I’m not a psychologist, I don’t know Rajon Rondo, and I didn’t stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night. But I do know that when the lights are brightest, Rondo plays his best. Remember that playoff series against the Bulls in 2009? Or how about his 29 points, 18 rebound, and 13 assist game against LeBron James’ Cavaliers in the 2010 playoffs. Or even his gutsy, play-through-the pain performance in last year’s second round vs. the Heat. With a history like that, some people might just call him clutch.