Changing of the Celtics guards
WALTHAM, Mass. -- There was a time when Ray Allen's shadow was easily distinguishable. Young Rajon Rondo determined in order to carve his path to greatness, he, too, needed to adopt a concentrated, rigid, consistent routine.
So, during the 2007-08 season, he attached himself to Allen and began mimicking the work ethic of his decorated teammate. Rondo started showing up 3½ hours before game time, just like Ray. He hoisted up a precise number of jumpers, just like Ray. He retreated to the locker room to shower pregame, just like Ray. The guys on the team ribbed him about whether he was going to shave his head, just like Ray.
Rondo didn't care.
"To be a winner, you have to be consistent, and Ray is all about consistency," Rondo said at the time.
The Celtics won the NBA championship that June, with their 22-year-old point guard and their 32-year-old shooting guard each making significant contributions.
Since then, Rondo has established himself as one of the top young players at his position. He is a three-time All-Star and this year's NBA assists leader.
He has spent the past two seasons undergoing the complicated transformation from a Big Three appendage to the key cog and future of the Celtics' franchise.
With that has come the need to establish his own identity -- and generate some independence from the three Hall of Famers who have mentored him from the start. Naturally, that process has, at times, created some discomfort. Privately, his veteran teammates wish Rondo worked harder, longer. And yet, in the same breath, they laud his toughness, fearlessness and insatiable thirst for competition.
It has been nearly three years since Rondo shadowed Allen during his pregame routine.
"I don't really know what happened," Allen shrugged. "I guess he decided to follow his own way. He has a strong mind."
There is more than one avenue to NBA success. The various paths this version of the Boston Celtics has followed are akin to a box of Whitman's Samplers. Paul Pierce is loose, free-wheeling, and deals only in positive self talk. KG lathers himself into such a volatile frenzy that his teammates know better than to tread on his pregame turf.
Ray Allen is all about routine. And, as it turns out, Rajon Rondo is anything but routine. He broods when things go awry, barely cracks a smile when he is a spectacular success. He has become the most mysterious Celtic of all, a curiosity among the fans, his teammates and his coaches.
His results often speak for themselves.
"He's misunderstood in so many ways," said his friend Keyon Dooling. "Just because he's quiet doesn't mean he doesn't care."
"He's different," Ray Allen said. "So what?"
In Game 2 of their playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks, both Allen and Rondo were relegated to spectator roles -- Allen due to painful bone spurs in his ankle and Rondo as the result of a one-game suspension for bumping referee Marc Davis.
They are two bona-fide stars heading in opposite directions. Rondo is approaching the peak of his career, a whirling flash of energy and talent and emotion. Allen is winding down his Hall of Fame career as one of the most distinguished shooters in the history of the game, a self-made picture of poise and self-control.
While Rondo is clearly uneasy when a scrum of media engulfs him (can't say I blame him), Allen handles interviews as deftly as he curls off a 3-point screen.
Allen watches Rondo and marvels at his Olympic-level quickness, his creative, split-second decisions, his uncanny court vision. He understands the scrutiny Rondo is under. Allen, too, has been termed "a curiosity"; in fact, teammate Paul Pierce maintains Ray's maniacal regimen borders on the absurd.
"I think we're all strange," Allen admitted. "We all have our idiosyncrasies. It's interesting when other people try to explain what we're all about. We all are operating in our own little worlds. We all have our own ideas, and then we go into what I call the lab, and we try to figure it out.
"I look at it and say, 'This is what I need to be great,' and 'I need some of what he has,' and then I mix it all up in a potion like some kind of mad scientist.
"So I think we all have our own weirdness. We all say and do things that are a little crazy."
Allen acknowledges he and Rondo have clashed at times. ("So have all of us at one time or another," he correctly states). He wistfully laments the days when Rondo was a sponge, wanting to know everything he could about the league and its pitfalls.
"You've got me, Paul and Kevin to reach out to," Allen said. "I'm sure [Rondo] has questions.
"All the great players I played with in my career I watched them. Like [former Milwaukee Bucks teammate] Sam [Cassell]. I studied the things he did, his first step, his post-up moves. Glenn (Big Dog) Robinson, his moves too. I'd ask them about it, and we'd talk, and then I'd incorporate some of their stuff into my game."
"But I don't look at how good Rondo is, I look at how good he can be," Allen said. "The NBA isn't about being drafted and being here. It's what you can accomplish while you are here.
"I think if there has ever been any criticism from in our locker room [about Rondo], it's 'Dude, you realize how good you could be?'"
Although Rondo did not supply the pound of flesh so many were seeking Wednesday regarding his suspension, his absence of an apology is more stubbornness than lack of regret.
In spite of his mildly defiant public stance, Rondo's teammates claim he was sickened by his ejection and the position in which he put his team. That's why they publicly threw their weight behind him after a rousing Game 2 win.
"I talked to him [after the ejection]," Allen said. "I wanted him to realize, 'Make sure you move forward in the right way. You need to understand that everyone is watching you. I know your emotions are high, but take a breather.'
"He was very, very responsive."
In previous stops in Milwaukee and Seattle, Allen was a mentor to Michael Redd and Damien Wilkins, who also mimicked his workout routine, but, unlike Rondo, continued to subscribe to it throughout their careers.
Ray recognizes his way isn't a fit for everyone. Rondo has flourished by adopting some, yet not all, of Allen's tactics. He is his own man.
Allen remains mystified why more of the young players on the Celtics' roster don't approach him, KG or Pierce.
"I tell these young guys, 'Use me. Use me as much as you can, while you can, because I'll be gone some day,"' he said. "And nobody really has since [Redd and Wilkins].
"I've never been that guy that walks over and say, 'Hey, let me show you how it's done.'
"These young guys, I don't know if it's intimidation or what, or if they don't want to be in our way, or they don't want to disrupt us, but I always say, 'Disrupt me. I want you to. You guys are all like my little brothers. I can help you. Walk onto the floor when I'm shooting free throws and challenge me to a free-throw game.'
"Even at my age, it's always great when someone wants to work out with me. They're pushing me as much as I'm pushing them."
Ray Allen has no idea if he's played his last game as a Boston Celtic. He will be a free agent at season's end and will likely move on. In the meantime, he said his cranky ankle felt good on Thursday, and that he was "optimistic" that both he and Rajon Rondo will take to the parquet for Game 3.
Unlike four seasons ago, Rondo will no longer be in the shadows.
All eyes will be on the point guard Friday night -- just like he always wanted.