Hoping to be even better
CLEVELAND — The Cavaliers showed Rajon Rondo the ultimate sign of respect Saturday night when coach Mike Brown assigned veteran Anthony Parker to defend him in the second half. Rondo spent the first 24 minutes punishing Mo Williams, and if Cleveland was going to rally from an 11-point deficit, that needed to change.
The next step for the fourth-year guard, in tonight’s Game 2 of the Celtics’ Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Cavaliers, is adjusting to the opponent’s adjustments. Rondo tried the same darting dives to the basket in the second half Saturday night and paid dearly by twice being steamrolled to the hardwood by Shaquille O’Neal. Rondo won the battle by getting to the free throw line, but his passion for getting to the rim waned as the 325-pound O’Neal lingered like a revolving hammer at a miniature golf course.
Instead of getting knocked into the court-side seats like one of those orange golf balls, Rondo dribbled through the key and looked for open teammates. Those teammates didn’t produce in the second half and the Celtics lost Game 1, 101-93. While Rondo finished with 27 points, 12 assists, and 6 rebounds and collected a new mass of admirers, his second half fell well short of his first, and he realizes his production could be critical in this series.
“I just wanted to keep everybody involved,’’ he said yesterday before the Celtics practiced at Quicken Loans Arena. “I still believe we’ve got to go through the Big Three and I try to get those guys the ball as much as possible and at the same time keep those defenses honest. So I guess in the second half, that’s exactly what I did. I tried to call more movement plays. At the start of the third, I was aggressive. After that I wanted the ball to keep moving because all we were running were high pick-and-rolls.’’
The Cavaliers made it clear they are going to test Rondo’s will with hard fouls on his 180-pound body. He has gotten up after every collision, but O’Neal’s foul with 9:03 left in the third sent Rondo sprawling, and he was on the floor for several moments before attempting the free throws.
“Nah, I didn’t lose them,’’ Rondo said when asked about his mid-air showdowns with Shaq. “I went to the free throw line. I got back up. Shaq has always fouled me like that. Going against Shaq, I don’t know how much he weighs but I’m 180 and he’s probably doubling that, so that’s probably what’s going to happen nine times out of 10. But I am still getting back up, you know? If I make the free throws, I win the battle.’’
The lovetaps from O’Neal serve as a coronation for Rondo as playoff standout. Teams didn’t prepare for Rondo two years ago as they do now. Brown went through three guys in practice last week, trying to replicate Rondo’s quickness, and he still dropped 19 points and 8 assists in the first half.
Slapping Rondo in the middle of a sandwich with Parker and O’Neal as the bread limited the point guard’s production and now he has to react to Brown’s chess move.
“We’re still going to do Kevin [Garnett], Paul [Pierce], and Ray [Allen],’’ Rondo said. “I don’t want to make too big of a deal on my matchup. That’s one game. I may have won the matchup but they won the game. At the end of the day, I may have three plays in the offense and the rest of the plays are for those guys, and I have to continue to get those guys the ball.’’
The Big Three combined for 8-for-27 shooting in the second half and went 2 for 14 in the fourth quarter. So while Rondo did increase his distribution after halftime, the Big Three turned his dimes into pennies. Still, Rondo said he will continue to get the ball to the veterans in their sweet spots, banking on different results in Game 2.
“If my mentality was to score, score, score, it would be difficult [to pass more],’’ he said. “But I’d rather pass any day. I’d rather pass first all the time, and get that assist, and make those guys’ job a lot easier.’’
Rondo’s humility is admirable, but once he realizes he’s a primary weapon on this aging roster, the more quickly he can adjust and improve his game. Rondo’s free throw percentage has soared from 62 percent during the regular season to 84 percent in the playoffs. And the same Rondo who went 3 for 22 from the 3-point line in the season’s final two months is 4 for 7 in the postseason.
He has excelled when the Celtics need him most and the progression can’t stop now. Brown’s astute game plan worked just enough for the Game 1 victory. And it takes a slice of arrogance for Rondo to call his own number when his teammates are struggling. The great ones realize when it’s time to be great, and Rondo is approaching that stage.
“I think I am more of a leader [than before],’’ he said. “I am not going to say Big Four. Those guys are still our main guys. I’m just a point guard of them.’’
Celtics coach Doc Rivers wants Rondo to be more offensively selfish and was pleased with the first half Saturday. Rondo has mastered the acrobatic, off-the-glass layup and also has become a better shooter.
“If you’ve got something good going you stick with it,’’ Rivers said of Rondo’s attacks on the basket. “I thought we should have done it more. I said it before the series, I said it was an advantage and I thought we didn’t do it enough.
“It’s a tough one for Rondo at times because he’s really so conscious of trying to get Paul and Ray involved. I told him, ‘If you’ve got a pick-and-roll advantage, we want you to take advantage.’ We didn’t take advantage of what we created and we have to do a better job of that.’’
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.