No Celtics player has been the topic of more discussion this season. The man with the assist streak has been a lightning rod for Boston sports fans. Reading the blogs and listening to talk radio before the game, one heard that Rondo either was the best point guard in the NBA or a mercurial, self-serving diva who never could be the centerpiece of a championship team.
Then the game started. These days, at the Garden, a fan’s attention is locked in two places. The first is the video scoreboard, where the fan cam runs on an endless loop. The second is Rajon Rondo.
Like any special player in the NBA, Rondo captivates an audience. He sees the court differently, and plays with a style completely unique to the NBA. For each of Rondo’s strengths — his handle, his ability to get to wherever he wants on the floor, his vision, and his passing — he has a weakness. Both the strengths and weaknesses are discussed with equal enthusiasm.
In the first half, the best and worst of Rondo was on full display. He had no trouble getting deep into the lane on a Brooklyn team that had Brook Lopez  at center and Kris Humphries at power forward. On one fast-break sequence, Rondo went coast-to-coast before leaving his feet for a layup under the basket, only to wrap the ball around a defender to an unsuspecting Brandon Bass . A potential dunk ended up as a turnover, and talk of Rondo’s predisposition to pass rather than shoot could be heard throughout the arena. On another possession, Rondo attempted to beat the shot clock by driving the lane, only to get his shot blocked by Humphries. On a later defensive possession, Rondo played his typical turnstile man-to-man defense as Deron Williams drove the lane. Rondo slapped at the opposing point guard’s hands after he was beat, putting Williams on the line.
The tough part for Rondo was the entire first half played out that way. He set up teammates for shots, and they missed. He struggled on the defensive end. With about four minutes left in the half, Rondo had three assists. He was off pace in his quest for his 38th consecutive game with 10 or more assists.
Then Humphries fouled Kevin Garnett  under the basket. Then Rondo snapped.
There is no bigger disparity in the opinions of Rondo than in the people who attend Celtics games and those who watch on TV — or perhaps don’t watch at all.
When Rondo pushed Humphries under the basket and the confrontation spilled into the seats, the arena erupted. It wasn’t much of a fight, but it was the first time a Celtic had pushed back all night. As tough as Garnett has been throughout his career, he now is a veteran who gets calls by absorbing contact and jerking away suddenly. For much of the first half, the Nets  initiated contact, and the Celtics got the calls. Often, Nets players shook their heads, almost surprised that this is how the Celtics want to play now.
But Rondo woke up the crowd. At the conclusion of the scuffle, fans rose to their feet and started a “Let’s go Celtics” chant. They cheered when Humphries and Gerald Wallace  were ejected. They booed when Rondo was ejected. There wasn’t a whole lot of discussion about Rondo’s maturity. Until the next day.
Wednesday and Thursday, the aftermath of the Rondo altercation brought out some of the worst in Boston sports fans. If you tuned in to The Big Show on WEEI, you could hear Michael Holley taking issue with someone who sent a text message that implied that Rondo was a typical NBA thug. Holley thought the text had racist overtones, and probably it did. There also were those who bashed Garnett for shying away from a fight with Wallace when the Nets forward rushed the Celtics big man. The argument goes, if Garnett wants to act tough on the court, he should back it up. There was little mention of the fact that fighting in hockey results in a five-minute major, while in basketball it results in a 15-game suspension (see Carmelo Anthony).
This is what makes the Rondo altercation difficult to defend. There’s no fighting in basketball. A great player and team leader never should start an altercation that results in his ejection. Michael Jordan  and Kobe Bryant  aren’t fighters. They just win. This is why criticism of Rondo’s actions is warranted.
On the other hand, the Celtics were dead on Tuesday night, and they’ve struggled to establish themselves all season. They have one of the worst rebounding teams in the NBA. They haven’t played well defensively. After the game, Doc Rivers  said the Celtics are a “soft team”. After making the comment, he clarified that he wasn’t talking about Rondo, Garnett, Paul Pierce  or Jason Terry .
So, what we need to realize as we rip Rondo for “failing to lead” or “hurting the team with a suspension” is it’s still only November. The Celtics are a soft team right now, and nobody besides Rondo is going to come to Garnett’s defense when he gets dropped to the floor. Rondo’s ejection and two-game suspension will not impact the way the Celtics perform in the playoffs, which is the only time of year that matters for a veteran team with championship pedigree. But perhaps Rondo’s hard foul will ignite players like Jeff Green , Courtney Lee  and Jared Sullinger to be tougher and come to their teammates’ defense.
An argument you’ll hear often in Boston revolves around whether Rondo is a top-five point guard in the NBA. There’s no definitive answer to the question. Chris Paul , Russell Westbrook , Derrick Rose  and Deron Williams certainly are in the discussion. They all can do things on the court that Rondo can’t. But the opposite can be said as well. On any given night, Rondo can get the better of a matchup with any point guard in the league. And at $11 million per year, he’s getting paid like Ty Lawson , Jrue Holliday and Stephen Curry, all of whom have never taken a team to the conference finals.
Rondo’s biggest detractors will harp on the fact that the playmaker can’t shoot. It might be true. Rondo certainly doesn’t have the range of Ray Allen  or Pierce. He’s only hit six 3-pointers all season. But Rondo also knows what he can’t do. On the season, he’s shooting 50.6 percent from the floor, and as a team, the Celtics are fourth in the league in field-goal percentage at 47.4 percent. Say what you will about Rondo passing up shots, but he’s passing because he believes someone else has a better chance of making it. Even without Allen spreading the floor and hitting treys, the Celtics are a top-four team in the NBA in field-goal percentage, and Rondo has the ball in his hands for the start of nearly every possession.
You also can say this about Rondo: He wins. Since the start of the 2007-08 season, which started when Rondo was 21 years old, he has been the starting point guard on teams that won 66, 62, 50, 56 and 39 games, respectively, and the 39 wins came in a 66-game season. Rondo is a 26-year-old point guard with a championship ring, yet you hear suggestions every day that the Celtics should trade him.
Yes, Rondo needs to grow up. This is his third suspension in the last year, and the “It’s only November; it’s not a big deal” excuse doesn’t work because one of those suspensions came in last year’s playoffs. Rondo never will make an Olympic team, despite having all the talent in the world, because he’s not well-liked around the league. You can argue that the assist streak was too important to Rondo, and Rivers had to put his point guard’s individual achievements ahead of the team in order to keep Rondo on the reservation. Remember, Rondo proved after the Kendrick Perkins  trade that he is not above checking out for extended periods of time if he’s unhappy with his superiors.
At the end of the day, what makes Rondo mercurial also is what makes him great. He ignited a scuffle Wednesday night because he cares. Jeff Green is criticized by Boston fans for not caring enough. If you’re someone who complains about how the NBA isn’t tough anymore, and superstar players are spoiled by refs, you can’t rip Rondo for being a throwback. All I know is I went to the Garden on Wednesday night eager to see Rondo. It wasn’t nearly as entertaining once he was gone.