- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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BOSTON -- Was there any doubt Rajon Rondo would show up for this one?
The recipe was ripe for one of those "Hey, watch me!" statements from Boston's curious and compelling point guard, who is consistent in one regard only: He's maddeningly inconsistent, alternately the most electrifying and vexing and exhilarating player on the Celtics' roster, maybe even in the league.
Rondo likes the big games -- always has. Sunday's matchup against the New York Knicks had all sorts of ramifications in the division and overall playoff seeding (the Knicks, like the Celtics, are vying to elevate themselves to the sixth spot, so as to avoid either Miami or Chicago in the first round). Against that backdrop, as well as a raucous, all-in TD Garden crowd, Rondo dropped three-ring circus numbers on the Knicks in a 115-111 overtime win: 18 points, 20 assists and 17 rebounds.
That's right, 20 assists -- Earvin "Magic" Johnson numbers. And 17 rebounds -- Larry Bird-type stats. It was the 17th triple-double of Rondo's career (including playoffs), and I'm guessing it will not stun you to learn that 13 of them, including Sunday's game, were broadcast on national television.
So here were the ingredients for his latest salvo in the "you don't respect me enough" war that he so often wages against himself. There was the national stage, the division opponent, the latest trade whispers and, of course, the point guard in the other locker room, Jeremy Lin, the league's newest and brightest sensation.
Rondo feigned indifference about New York's latest sports icon, but we know better.
So do his teammates. Kevin Garnett made a mental note of Rondo's resolve when the notoriously tardy Celtic was the first or second player to arrive before the game.
"If you know Rondo, you know he's an 'I'll show you' kind of player," Garnett observed. "This game had enough juice on it to be the kind he's interested in."
Boston's simple strategy against Lin was to force him to use his left hand. The small sample of data teams have been able to compile during Lin's brief career suggests that when you do that, his turnovers go up and his shots go down.
But Rondo didn't stop there. He has his own ideas on how to flummox Lin, including pushing the ball on every miss and daring Lin to keep pace with him in the open floor. A mere three minutes into the game, Rondo stood smugly at the free throw line with a chance to complete a three-point play (he missed the free throw), while Lin was lifted because of two early fouls.
Even after Lin retreated to the pine, Rondo continued to attack, defend, facilitate and score.
"That's the Rondo we like to see, playing with all that energy," said teammate Paul Pierce, who checked out with a game-high 34 points, including the biggest bucket of the night, a 3-pointer with 4.9 seconds left that forced overtime.
Although Lin exploded for six points in the final minutes to help his team get into that overtime period, he was thoroughly outplayed. Harvard's finest son walked off with 14 points (on 6-of-16 shooting), 5 assists, 6 turnovers and 4 fouls.
"Obviously Rondo controlled the tempo of the game," Lin said.
Garnett was so impressed with Rondo's gaudy numbers he tucked away the final box score in his pocket as a memento. "To prove I was a witness," he said.
I know what you are thinking: Why does Rondo need Jeremy Lin or trade rumors or All-Star snubs to perform this way? Why can't he play like his reputation depends on it every single night?
Few NBA players bring it every game, but Rondo plays with at least one of them: Garnett. Rondo has the model right before him, if only he can look past his stubbornness, moodiness and deep, often destructive, pride.
Those "off" nights are why his name can't be placed on that "untouchable" list reserved for the very elite in the league. Talent is a gift, but consistency is an acquired trait.
The kid is making strides, but he's not there yet. He still gets caught up in the mano-a-mano moments that often come back to bite you. His courtside manner still grates on his teammates at times, as it did Sunday when he kept chirping at Brandon Bass until his exasperated teammate turned and said, "Shut the [expletive] up!" Rondo, expressionless, merely turned away.
In 47 minutes of playing time Sunday afternoon, Rondo was alternately patient, then in a big hurry. He made tough shots, then missed a slew of easy layups that simply rolled off the rim down the stretch of regulation.
His end-to-end defensive effort, in stretches, was textbook. His gritty rebounding in traffic belied his slender frame. His adeptness at penetrating, then kicking it out was a key reason Pierce, Bass and Ray Allen were able to knock down key shots.
It was a flawed game, to be sure. The Knicks thoroughly croaked the Celtics in the opening half, but led by only five. "I thought we were a little cavalier with the ball," Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni lamented, in what can be charitably termed a major understatement.
Boston had a 15-point lead late in the third quarter and watched it shrink to single digits. The Celtics were up six with less than three minutes to go and couldn't close it out.
"We were just not disciplined down the stretch," coach Doc Rivers admitted.
For pure theater, this game had plenty of big plays, big names, young star power and old-time rivalry storylines.
Rondo was in the thick of it all. He was, for stretches of the afternoon, the best player on the floor.
His team plays again on Tuesday. By then, Jeremy Lin and the Knicks will be gone.
The Rajon Rondo that beat them on Sunday needs to find a way to stick around for the long haul.
Jackie MacMullan is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.
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