A year ago, the biggest question surrounding the revamped Celtics was their second-year point guard. Bringing together 22 years' worth of All-Stars with a luxury tax-busting payroll and putting it all the hands of such an unproven commodity was equated to putting a kid with a learner's permit behind the wheel of a Rolls-Royce.
The doubts surrounded Rajon Rondo from the first day of training camp. While most in New England soon grew comfortable with the dynamic talent running the Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen show, in the playoffs there was a whole new crowd in need of convincing. Throughout the postseason, Celtics games became a nightly referendum on Rondo's ability to perform on the NBA's greatest stage.
There were nights when he stumbled. In the end, he shined well enough to help bring Boston a 17th championship.
"From the beginning, the focus was on me," said Rondo as he prepares to begin the team's title defense when training camp starts next week in Newport, R.I. "It never got taken off me. Especially when they put Kobe (Bryant) on me in the Finals, it was on me even more.
"But even in Games 3 and 4 in L.A. when I didn't play much, it was a learning experience. I didn't play well on the road in the Finals, but I bounced back and had a great Game 6. It was just handling adversity. As a young player, being consistent in this league is the hardest thing to do."
Though Rondo had his ups and downs -- which the national analysts documented to exhaustion -- his biggest games came in many of Boston's biggest victories. In Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semis, he played the entire second half and torched the Cavs for 20 points (on 9-of-15 shooting) with 13 assists. Against the Pistons, Rondo had 17 points, 13 assists, six rebounds and four steals in 46 minutes of a critical Game 5 victory. In the Finals, he helped deliver the knockout blow with a 21-point, eight-assist, seven-rebound, six-steal performance in the clinching Game 6.
His statistics improved from his rookie year in points (10.4 per game from 6.4), rebounds (4.2 from 3.7), assists (5.1 from 3.8) and, perhaps most notably, shooting percentage (49.2 percent from 41.8 percent).
Now last year's biggest question must answer the bell again.
"You could say I'm confident, but not too cocky," he said. "But it doesn't matter what other people say, what critics say. It matters what Coach (Doc) Rivers says. He gave me a lot of leeway last year as a second-year point guard. That gave me the confidence, and Danny (Ainge) did as well. I am a champion now. I proved I am a winner."
Allen in the spotlight
For the first time since his rookie year, Tony Allen should be entering camp relaxed. There's no surgically repaired knee to rehab, no free agency to worry about, and no legal trouble weighing on his mind. Yet Allen insists this is no time to be content.
"It's going to be like any other camp," he said. "I am going in trying to impress the coaches. I am going in letting them know I'm a force to be reckoned with. And I am a force to be reckoned with."
With James Posey gone to New Orleans via free agency, Allen could see a jump in playing time this season. But the fifth-year guard, who signed a two-year contract extension this summer, is not counting on anything.
"I am never relaxed," he said. "I've seen so many of my teammates, so many of my best friends, get traded. I love the Celtics, and love the hard work I've put in to stay with the Celtics, so you can never catch me relaxing. I am always intense."
Pierce said earlier this summer that it would be easier to sacrifice for the greater good a second season because everyone knows the type of success those sacrifices brought last year.
Leon Powe, who spent the first half of the year at the end of the bench before emerging as a key frontcourt reserve, seconds that notion.
"We knew how hard it was for us to get there," Powe said. "Especially the veteran guys, they know what it takes and they are going to be hungry for another one. I can't say enough about those guys because they are the ones who got everyone else willing to sacrifice last year. When you see your older veteran guys doing it, everyone else is going to follow."
Scott Souza covers the Celtics for OT and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org