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Irish Coffee: Summer of Rajon Rondo gives way to winter

11.29.12 at 2:12 am ET

If this is what Rajon Rondo thinks of leadership, the Celtics are in big trouble.

All summer, everyone from president Danny Ainge to coach Doc Rivers and on down the line told anyone who would listen that this is the 26-year-old point guard’s team now. No longer Paul Pierce‘s. Not Kevin Garnett‘s. But a matured Rondo’s. Then, Wednesday night’s Nets game happened.

Just as he did last season, when he thew a ball at one referee and chest-bumped another, Rondo let his emotions get the best of him, completely overreacting to a hard Kris Humphries foul on Kevin Garnett late in the first half.

As referee crew chief James Caper said after a home Celtics loss to the Nets that was much uglier than the 95-83 final at the TD Garden, “Rondo initiated everything that proceeded after the foul.”

In other words, just as he was last season, Rondo will be suspended, especially considering he threw closed fists as he shoved Humphries into the stands. His history won’t help, either. Speculation sets the over/under on games the Celtics will be without their so-called leader at 3-5 games, but as New York Times reporter Howard Beck suggested, “Nate Robinson and J.R. Smith got 10 games each because they continued fight into the stands.”

Just like his legendary 37-game double-digit assist streak of John Stockton proportions, Rondo’s maturation process came to a screeching halt against the Nets. With it, probably, goes his Most Valuable Player aspirations. When’s the last time an NBA MVP was suspended for fighting during a season? This was the year he was supposed to make the leap. Instead, he takes a step backwards. After the game, Rondo left without speaking to the media, leaving Pierce, Garnett and the rest of his Celtics teammates to face questions only he could answer.

“You don’€™t want to get into any altercations where it’€™s going to cost you any games,” said Pierce, who dubbed the altercation “a pushing match” from his limited perspective. “The best you can do is try to play mediator in there.”

“I don’t think anybody should get thrown out of a game,” added Rivers. “We all have to keep our emotions.”

“Since I’€™ve been here, we’€™ve taken a lot of pride with being C’€™s, putting this jersey on, and sometimes I question that we really understand what it means, and that’€™s bothersome,” finished Garnett. “I’€™m a very prideful person, as is true of a lot of people who built this before me, and the due diligence and the responsibility that comes with that has to be self. You’€™ve got to look yourself in the mirror, but we’€™ve got to get that back somehow.”

Ironically, Rondo emerged from the scuffle without his Celtics jersey on. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that they’re struggling to find an identity in the same season they declared Rondo as the face of their franchise. For the past five years, the C’s built their reputation on toughness, mentally and physically, forcing guys like Humphries, Gerald Wallace, Joe Johnson and Andray Blatche to lose their cool. Now? Just the opposite.

“If I’m Brooklyn and the league, you’ve got to think we’re pretty soft the way we’re playing,” said Rivers. “We’re a soft team right now; we have no toughness. And that stuff’s not toughness. All that stuff, that’s not toughness.”

“When you rate effort as a whole, yeah, I would say [we didn’t meet theirs],” said Garnett, who wasn’t without fault, shoving Wallace in the aftermath. “That’€™s hard to say, because I play hard every night, but I’€™m speaking on a team aspect, so that’€™s very difficult to answer, but yes”: The Nets had more fight between the whistles.

Even before Rondo’s ejection, the Celtics had fallen behind by as many as 21 points. A guy who sat the final month of season due to lack of conditioning (Blatche) and a 38-year-old (Jerry Stackhouse) were already embarrassing them. It’s no wonder the Nets spent much of the postgame laughing at the other locker room.

“Mentally tough. Lot of fiber on our team. And a battle. They battled and they fought hard, literally I guess. And they just didn’t give in. They didn’t give in to any adversity tonight.” That could’ve been Doc Rivers talking at any point over the past five seasons. Instead, that’s coming from Nets coach Avery Johnson.

This is Doc Rivers: “Kevin, Paul and Rondo and a couple other guys — it’s almost like they understand the jersey they’re wearing and the pride. And everybody else — and not everyone — it’s almost like they think because they put the jersey on that they are something. You’ve got to earn it here.”

Where else does this Celtics group get that message from than their leader? You’ve got to earn that, too. Sure, Rondo came to the defense of his teammate and friend, but at what cost? His team stands at 8-7, fourth place in their division, and faces a new streak: One without Rondo, an invaluable piece to their unsolved puzzle. And does Garnett really need to rely upon the 6-foot-1, 185-pound little engine that could to fight a grudge that goes back almost a decade, when Humphries starred at University of Minnesota while Garnett played for the Timberwolves?

The summer of Rondo is over, and it could be a long winter if he doesn’t become the leader Ainge, Rivers and everybody else declared him to be. But that’ll have to wait until after the suspension, of course.

(Have a question, concern or conception for the next Irish Coffee? Send a message to @brohrbach on Twitter.)

Read More: Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, Kevin Garnett, Kris Humphries
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