The good feelings extend throughout the squad. If Rondo is knocked on his back, he'll look up to find his teammates helping him up. "That's a team thing," says Rivers. "Whenever a guy doesn't pick another guy up, we put it on film [and show it to the players]. We think it's very important—if a guy's willing to go to the floor, we should have four guys willing to pick him up. It's funny now, but when we were struggling [in midseason] a couple of times a guy would be laying on the floor and guys would walk right by him, because everybody was pissed at everybody."
But now, says Rondo with a laugh, when a player goes down, "it might be the whole team [helping him up]. There might be some bench players coming out there."
After a season and a half of struggles set off by Garnett's right knee injury in February of 2009, the Celtics look more balanced and fluid than ever. The most obvious improvement since their win over the Lakers in the '08 Finals has been Rondo's blossoming confidence as a driver and shooter, enabling him to not only orchestrate but also play off the ball as a potential finisher. The difficulties the Celtics pose to defenses were illustrated with 1:33 remaining in Game 2 at Orlando. The Magic trapped Pierce above the top of the key only to have him find Rondo for an open 16-footer at the left elbow. He smoothly drilled the biggest jump shot of his young career to give Boston a 93--90 lead. (The Celts won 95--92.) "I don't think Rondo runs from those shots anymore," says Rivers. "He's put the time in, and I think he's eager for [his defender] to leave him now at the end of a game."
So much of Boston's postseason success against Miami, Cleveland and Orlando—the top three teams in opponents' field goal percentage during the regular season—has been generated by Rondo, who bursts low past defenders like a sprinter out of the starting block. Once he's in the paint he can score with floating Nash-like runners or outlandish scoops high off the glass. Otherwise, the ball control provided by his exceptionally large hands and long arms (he has a 6'10" wingspan) enables him to complete passes out to the three-point line. "One of the things that Red [Auerbach] said that I never even thought about is that point guards with short arms can't make passes, because everything is deflected," says Rivers. "So when you see Rondo with long arms and big hands, he can reach around, he can do things that guys who are 6'8" or 6'9" can normally do."
Rondo rivals Nash as the league's best one-handed passer off the dribble, and in practice Rondo has been refining his behind-the-back deliveries. "I'm pretty good at it off the dribble, standing still," he says. "I can probably do it from half court to the free throw line with accuracy." Rondo was a math whiz in high school, and his feeling for angles and distances gives him the courage to attempt and often complete outlandish bounce passes in transition that he'll thread through a running herd of defenders. "I like it only when it works," says Rivers with a smiling grimace. "But you've got to give him rope because he's gifted. He sees things, and he has the ability to do things that 95 to 98 percent of the league can't do."
And perhaps that knack for geometry helps Rondo rebound. How else to account for the 18 boards he collected in Boston's Game 4 win against the Cavs? "I've always had that ability where I could see the shot go up and know where it's going and how it's going to hit the rim," says Rondo, who added 29 points and 13 assists in that game. The longer the rebound the better: "That's like the first pass on a fast break to me," he says.
Should the Celtics and the Lakers, who at week's end held a 2--1 lead over the Suns in the Western Conference finals, renew their rivalry next week in the Finals, then Rondo promises to be the second most essential player on the floor after Kobe Bryant, who may be the Laker best equipped to cover Rondo. If he does draw that assignment, then Kobe had better be ready to run. The Celtics have occasionally been tracking each player's mileage during the playoffs, and their basketball operations analyst Mike Zarren told Rondo he ran a team-high 3.65 miles during one of the games against Cleveland. Rondo was disappointed—he thought the number should have been up around six—but Rivers is grateful that Rondo, who is averaging 41.9 minutes in the playoffs, has been so durable. "Without his speed," says Rivers, "we're a slow-ass basketball team."
Add it altogether—the speed and ball skills, the versatility and resiliency, the defense and court vision, the deep playoff run—and Rondo knows the final score. "I'm biased, but if I truly felt someone was that much better than me, I would give credit," he says. "Derrick Rose, Chris Paul, the young guys, Deron Williams—they're very good. But for what I do, I think I'm the best. I don't think I'd be this successful so far if I didn't have that confidence. I don't think I'd be able to do what I've done leading this team, because it's not easy playing with these high-caliber guys."
That's why he looked so proud as Garnett lauded him during a press conference last Saturday after Rondo doled out 12 assists—two more than the Magic roster. "He's just showing the world what he's made of," said Garnett. "He grits down, he works extremely hard, he's earned the respect of every guy on this team." Rondo was uncharacteristically beaming. He had worked three hard years for this recognition, and then he sealed it by rubbing a large hand across Garnett's bald head. Peers at last.
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