Rondo steals show
In give-and-take effort, he’s the king for Celtics
The ovation couldn’t drown out the jokes.
Rajon Rondo had just stripped Sean May — a 6-foot-9-inch, 266-pound forward trying to complete a crossover dribble — then wrapped the ball behind his back, hitting his defender, Beno Udrih, with a stutter-step before blurring by him to start the fast break.
He then launched an outlet to Michael Finley, who immediately swung it to Ray Allen on the wing. It would have been an assist if Rondo were on skates, but it wasn’t included in the season-high 18 he dished out in the Celtics’ 94-86 win over the Sacramento Kings.
The steal, however, went in the books. It was his 168th of the season, giving him the season franchise record.
And as the milestone flashed on the big screen and 18,624 fans showered him with cheers, Rondo’s teammates couldn’t help picking on him at least a little.
“Our entire bench said it,’’ Rondo said. “I have the record for most steals and the most gambles in one season.’’
“One of the guys said, ‘Now you can go back to being solid,’ ’’ said Celtics coach Doc Rivers.
Rondo said with a grin he wasn’t aware of the gambles.
“We were,’’ Garnett said.
“I don’t know if we keep that stat,’’ Rondo said.
“We keep it,’’ Garnett said. “Don’t worry about it.’’
It’s an urge he admits he fights. Every so often you can see him let his man go by, then swipe at the ball, trying to poke it loose. But when he’s at his best defensively, which he was for most of last night’s win, Rondo is a menace, affecting the game without having to shoot or score.
He went 3 for 10, with 6 points, but he had a hand in 28 of the Celtics’ 57 first-half points.
At times he was a wingman, setting up his teammates. Then, he’d be a puppeteer, pulling the strings on his opponents.
He went behind-the-back to himself for a fastbreak layup that made it 50-33 in the second quarter, and sort of laughed to himself about it when he replayed it in his mind after the game.
“The one I got Sean May with?’’ Rondo said. “I actually tried against Denver last game . . . I’m sure on the scouting report a lot of guys probably think I do the fake behind the back and keep it, but this time I actually threw it and he went for it. It just happened. I wasn’t trying to overthink it or be fancy or too cute. I was just trying to make a play.’’
He only made one shot after that, a layup a couple possessions later.
Rondo’s game is absolutely dependent on the Celtics defense, which is why the Kings found themselves down, 57-37, at the half.
If a team scores and forces the Celtics to play halfcourt offense, Rondo’s the player to help off of, according to Rivers. But if the Celtics get stops, Rondo gets out in the open floor, at which point the opposing defense is helpless.
The Kings shot 38.1 percent in the first half, missing 26 of their 42 shots, essentially letting Rondo out of the cage.
“When we get multiple stops, it makes Rondo unbelievable,’’ said Rivers. “I think our team knows that now. I think they absolutely understand that if we can get three, four, five, six stops in a row, it allows us to be a running team. It allows Rondo to get the ball in transition.’’
He was able to create shots for Garnett (18 points, 13 rebounds), Paul Pierce (22 points) and Allen (20 points) almost effortlessly.
“He just creates uncertainty,’’ Allen said. “Point guards just don’t know exactly what to expect, making them so uncomfortable out there on the floor. He’s just so quick, has long arms, before you know it the ball’s going in the other direction.’’
Said Rivers: “It makes Rondo really good. It’s the best chance for him to be great. I think our team is starting to get that message and I think it’s vital for us come playoff time.’’
Of the six games on this homestand, the matchup with the Kings — the third-worst team in the West — was the most winnable. Without Rookie of the Year candidate Tyreke Evans (concussion), the Kings were offensively handicapped, getting the bulk of their scoring from Carl Landry, brother of Celtics D-Leaguer Marcus Landry, who scored a game-high 30 points on points on 10-of-16 shooting.
In a season in which Rondo’s became an All-Star and emerged as one of the Celtics’ focal points, the steals record was a small milestone in a larger picture.
“That’s an individual accomplishment,’’ Rondo said. “They come in the path when you try to do great things for a team.’’