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The Main Event Fizzles (But It’s Only Round One)

12.12.08 at 9:58 pm ET
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All the talk before the Celtics-Hornets game was about the point guards. That’s not unusual when a player like Chris Paul comes to town, but what was unusual was the use of the plural. Guards. Rajon Rondo has put himself in some select company, and yes that includes CP3, even if Paul did wind up outplaying him this time around.

“This year, they’re calling it a matchup,” Doc Rivers said before tip-off. “That shows you far he’s come.”

Respect has come the hard way for Rondo, who played Paul to a standstill in two epic encounters last season, but is just now beginning to receive the league-wide accolades. Relaxing in his chair and holding court with reporters before the game–he’s one of the few Celtics who does–Rondo was nonplussed about facing Paul, dishing out the usual boilerplate about it being a team game and a team effort.

In that sense, Rondo was right because of all the reasons for the Celtics win, Rondo’s play was not high on the list. “We had to go with different lineups,” Rivers said. “You know, Rondo wasn’t Rondo and Eddie had to step in.” The kid is entitled to a mulligan, especially considering the way he’s played over the last month, but after tonight, it doesn’t get any easier.

Deron Williams and Utah come to town on Monday. On Wednesday Rondo matches up with one his mentors, Mike Bibby of Atlanta, and then on Friday it’s a return engagement with leading Rookie of the Year contender, Derrick Rose and Chicago. Not that it should, but if anyone is still waiting to put Rondo in the elite class of point guards, this week will be a referendum.

Don’t tell New Orleans coach Byron Scott that Rondo has anything left to prove. “He’s playing at a high level,” Scott said. “He doesn’t get himself into trouble. He’s got different speeds, which is important, and he finishes. There’s nothing he can’t do well, except shoot from the outside.”

It seems rather amazing that everyone in the league knows this, and Friday night notwithstanding, very few teams are able to take advantage of Rondo’s still-shaky jumper. ESPN’s David Thorpe pointed out in a story on Rondo (Insider only) that he takes more than half of his shots from inside the paint and has an Effective Field Goal percentage of 72 percent. (You can see those numbers on 82games.com).

For a player who is listed at 6-1, 171 pounds, that’s unheard of. Paul, for example, takes a little more than a third of his shots from close range. Despite Rondo’s off-night, he didn’t play that poorly, scoring 10 points to go with six rebounds, and helping limit Paul to a 5-for-16 shooting night. Again, a sign of how far he’s come when that is considered a poor performance.

Don’t expect his off night to linger. As always with Rondo, the word “confidence” is the primary adjective. It’s not cockiness, necessarily, it’s more a strong sense of self that Rondo exudes. In the pregame he was asked when it was that he began to assert himself. “Pretty much from Day One,” he said. “I had to get these guys respect. I asked Doc if that was all right and he said that it was. I respect the years those guys have in the game, but I’m the point guard. I have to be the leader.”

There has been this notion that it’s hard for Rondo to be that leader, what with strong personalities like Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen on the floor. Ask him about that and he just shrugs. Besides, gaining the respect of his coach is the most important thing.

Rivers has been hard on his point guard. That’s just his way. That’s how Mike Fratello was with him when he a young player trying to make his mark on a Hawks team with Dominique Wilkins, no shrinking violet. A good game by Rondo would be met with a request for more, a bad one would have Rivers shaking his head.

It wasn’t until the conference championship against the Pistons when everyone was conceding the matchup with Chauncey Billups, that Rivers began to loudly advocate for his guard. Rondo repaid that trust by completely outplaying the veteran.

“With every team, the point guard and the coach have to have a relationship,” Rivers said. “With Rajon he’s been able to go and run the sets without looking at me.”

One more Rondo story. Apparently the flight home from Washington was a little rough. “It was rocky,” he said. “KG was screaming.” How did he take the turbulence? “I was calm.” He’s the point guard. He has to be calm.

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