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Bright lights, big game? A Rajon Rondo meme

03.10.12 at 7:26 pm ET
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Rajon Rondo doesn't always save his best for the national stage. (AP)

As everyone knows, Rajon Rondo plays his best in big games, especially when the national spotlight shines brightest. He’s recorded 17 triple doubles in his career including playoffs and 13 of them have come on national television.

He had an outrageous 18-17-20 line against Jeremy Lin and the Knicks and dropped a 32-10-15 on the Bulls three weeks earlier. Both games were on Sunday on ABC. On the flip side, his worst games have come against the Cavs, Raptors and Pistons.

Some days he shares history with Oscar Roberston and Wilt Chamberlain. Other times he plays more like Brevin Knight.

Some wonder why he can’t be more consistent. Others gaze in wonder at his historic performances and praise his clutch play. (Shouldn’t he want to play better in big games?) To put it another way: It wouldn’t be historic if he was able to do it every night.

The truth lies somewhere in between.

Per basketball-reference, Rondo has had five games this season with a Game Score over 20:

1 1 2011-12-25 25-306 BOS @ NYK L 1 41:16 11 19 .579 0 1 .000 9 12 .750 1 4 5 13 5 0 5 2 31 31.1
2 19 2012-02-12 25-355 BOS CHI W 1 39:53 11 22 .500 0 2 .000 10 13 .769 2 8 10 15 2 0 5 3 32 29.9
3 20 2012-02-15 25-358 BOS DET L 1 39:26 15 27 .556 1 1 1.000 4 9 .444 2 3 5 6 4 0 2 1 35 28.2
4 5 2012-01-01 25-313 BOS @ WAS W 1 33:43 7 10 .700 0 0 4 7 .571 4 7 11 14 1 0 3 2 18 24.5
5 26 2012-03-04 26-011 BOS NYK W 1 47:47 7 20 .350 0 0 4 7 .571 4 13 17 20 1 1 4 3 18 22.8

Note that two of those games have come against the Knicks whose helter-skelter style of play fits right into Rondo’s abilities and two that two of them have come against the Pistons and Wizards, not exactly red-letter opponents. Conversely, he’s had five games with a Game Score of less that five:

25 14 2012-02-03 25-346 BOS NYK W 1 34:21 3 8 .375 0 1 .000 1 4 .250 1 4 5 7 2 0 5 1 7 4.8
26 11 2012-01-14 25-326 BOS @ IND L 1 35:49 3 9 .333 0 0 0 0 3 0 3 9 0 0 4 3 6 4.1
27 22 2012-02-19 25-362 BOS @ DET L 1 28:23 1 6 .167 0 0 3 4 .750 0 2 2 10 0 0 6 2 5 1.6
28 18 2012-02-10 25-353 BOS @ TOR L 1 40:50 2 10 .200 0 1 .000 1 1 1.000 2 3 5 7 0 0 5 1 5 0.6
29 23 2012-02-28 26-006 BOS @ CLE W 1 32:29 0 6 .000 0 0 0 0 0 3 3 11 1 0 5 4 0 -1.2

It is notable that four of those games came on the road and two were on the second end of back-to-backs. The Knicks game was his first back from a wrist injury. In between, he’s had seven between 15-20, five between 10-15 and seven between 5-10. That’s roughly the same ratio as Paul Pierce, to cite one example.

Judging Rondo by his statistics is not always the best way to measure his impact. The Celtics are 5-0 when he has 14 assists or more and they’ve won all three games when he’s had five or less. They’re 2-4 when he scores 20 or more points and 8-4 when he scores 10 or less.

“I don’t even look at his numbers,” coach Doc Rivers said. “I look at the way we play.”

If the ball is moving and the Celtics are running, then Rivers feels that Rondo has done his job. Like most players, he’s also dependent on his teammates for help. Some of his worst games have come on the second nights of back-to-backs where the Celtics have notably struggled. It’s hard to run when you can’t get rebounds and the Celtics are one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the league.

None of that is to excuse him or give him a free pass for some of his poor performances, but it is a measure of how difficult it is to gauge his true value around the league. It’s not a coincidence that the trade talk around him has cooled off noticeably. What, exactly, would fair value for a player like Rondo actually look like? He’s not a superstar on the order of LeBron James, Chris Paul or Kobe Bryant, but he is capable of superstar moments.

He’ll have another chance on the biggest stage when the Celtics play the Lakers Sunday at Staples. More than most teams, the Lakers have given him trouble with the deadly combination of Bryant’s sagging defense and the twin towers of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum clogging the lane.

Other teams have tried the same tactic, but they don’t have the same personnel. Not counting the two finals series, the Lakers have won five of the last seven games and if form holds, Rondo will post good but not take-over numbers on Sunday. Of course, if he finds a way to go off, everyone will nod and say that’s what they expected him to do.

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