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Bill Russell, Kevin Garnett, and selfless play

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  February 12, 2013 12:50 PM

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On the occasion of Bill Russell's 79th birthday, I offer one of countless statistics in support of his unmatched brilliance and unique place as team sports' greatest winner.

At age 34, in his final NBA season, he averaged 19.3 rebounds per game -- the second-lowest single-season total of his career. Bonus Russell stat: He dished out 4.9 assists per game that season, an average Jason Terry -- a guard -- hasn't managed in the past six seasons.

Let Doc Rivers in on those ridiculous items of confirmation concerning Russell's unmatched brilliance and he'd probably be pleading with him to give 10 good minutes off the bench Wednesday night against Joakim Noah and the Bulls.

Actually, Doc, who embraces the history of the league and the franchise as much as any contemporary NBA personality, is probably well aware of all of Russell's various incredible feats. (OK, permit me one more quirky one: Russell averaged just 8.4 shots per game during his final season -- almost one shot fewer per game than Brandon Bass is averaging this season.)

It seems appropriate to acknowledge Russell today not just because it's his birthday or because it's always appropriate to acknowledge Russell, but because his extraordinary victory-above-all-personal-glory approach to the sport has ancestral branches with the incredibly likable current edition of the Celtics.

Look at that Sports Illustrated cover from five whole seasons ago. (Five-plus seasons? Has it really been that long? It really has been that long.) Now go ahead, ask yourself this: How much mutual admiration must there be between Russell and Kevin Garnett, who is as unselfish and team-obsessed as any player, superstar or otherwise, of his generation?

And how fun has it been to watch KG, who turns 37 in May and is older now than Russell was when he walked away, rage against his age during this recent stretch in which the defiant Celtics have lost more players to apparently season-ending injuries than they've lost games?

Monday night's justifiable loss to the Bobcats excepted, the Celtics are playing wildly entertaining winning basketball. When Garnett and Paul Pierce have stepped away from the parquet and moved along to Springfield, we'll remember the triple-overtime victory over the Nuggets Sunday night as one of the most rewarding regular-season performances during their time here as teammates.

Watching them play now, fighting for every last inch their aging legs and extraordinary savvy will allow, I'm almost convinced that their last days in Boston won't be tinged with the broken-bodied sadness that accompanied the decline of the original Big Three, particularly Larry Bird and Kevin McHale. They're ancient by NBA standards, sure, but KG and Pierce aren't breaking down, not yet, and their will is so incredible that I don't want to see them play anywhere else but here. Barring any more season-ending injuries, the status quo works for me, Danny.

Besides, I don't think we could handle the culture shock of watching the likes of DeMarcus Cousins mope through, oh, a Tuesday night game in Orlando after watching KG bring it every single night for so many years.

There is a third Celtic who, though much younger, is a respected peer of KG and Pierce, having played a crucial role in winning that 17th banner and in so many memorable on-court battles with the Heat, Lakers, Bulls and lesser rivals since. Of course, Rajon Rondo is absent now, the Celtics ripping off seven straight wins before Monday's loss in the aftermath of his season-ending knee injury, and so it seems every game doubles as a referendum on just how important or unimportant the brilliant, flawed point guard is.

There's no doubt they've had their best run of basketball in his absence, with KG (shooting) and Pierce (facilitating) taking on even more responsibility and some of the crucial supporting cast suddenly thriving (by coincidence or not) since he went down. Jeff Green is playing with confidence and aggression, and at his best you're damn straight there's a little James Worthy in his game. Terry is hitting shots he was missing when Rondo was running the show, and he's come right up the line without outright saying that he's more comfortable when Rondo isn't running the show and dominating the ball.

While being mildly amused at the enigmatic tangle of Rondo's career -- he's called selfish for passing too much, and yet somehow the offense is playing with greater urgency and efficiency in the absence of one of the sport's premier playmakers -- I simply refuse to believe that the team will be better off in the long run without him, and not just because he's a guy who can drop 40 stylish points on the Heat or win a playoff series by himself. I don't know if this was ever said of Russell (I doubt it), but it has been suggested of KG and it also applies to Rondo: He needs to score more when the opportunity is there. Of course, with KG, his reluctance to shoot is perceived rightfully as unselfishness. With Rondo, he's accused of wanting to pad his assist totals above all else.

What I've recognized during this stretch of outstanding play and reassuring victories since Rondo's injury is this: There is actually room for this wonderful player to significantly improve. He needs to make the effort to get to the rim more often -- I feel like he really can do this at will -- and he needs to finish when he gets there rather than kicking the ball out habitually. He needs to forget about the embarrassment of missing a free throw and not let his issues at the line render him passive late in games. He needs to distribute the ball before 20 seconds have ticked off the shot clock. He needs to do everything he can to make sure his teammates are in the right spot to thrive, just as he did with pet project Avery Bradley last year.

He can do all of this things on top of all of his various otherworldly talents and skills. It's up to him whether he does, whether he becomes truly team-focused in that rare Russell/Garnett manner.

But it speaks to the uniqueness of Rondo -- and yes, to his enigmatic ways -- that a reduced assist total upon his return might actually be an indication that he's more unselfish than ever, at last ready to provide whatever it his his team needs on any given night.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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