I'm not sure what was more exasperating on Wednesday night: Watching the Boston Celtics fail once again to win a closeout game on the road -- a game they could have won -- or wondering what was going on with Rajon Rondo?
The Celtics' inability to finish the job, especially in a roadie, does not, unfortunately, constitute a news bulletin. Their record since 2008 is 2-11. Rondo's play, or his seemingly indifferent approach to the game, also does not, unfortunately, constitute a news bulletin.
One thing Doc Rivers doesn't have to worry about Saturday night -- or any game night, for that matter -- is what kind of effort he's going to get from Kevin Garnett. The Big Ticket may not play well, but he is going to give you everything he has, every game. You will never read a story that hinted that KG was not into the game, for whatever reason. You can say the same thing for Ray Allen (who clearly is nowhere close to his usual self) or Paul Pierce.
You can be sure that Saturday night's Game 7 will have sufficient "juice" -- that's KG's phrase -- for Rondo to come to play. You can book a triple-double right now and go wait in the collection line for the payoff.
But what was his story Wednesday night? Did that game not contain sufficient "juice" for him? A possible series-clincher, a guaranteed berth in the Eastern Conference finals?
Clearly it didn't, judging from the game he played. Paul Pierce gave him a playful (we think) smack on the noggin to try to get him going. But Rondo was in some alternative universe for much of the game. He missed 10 of the 14 shots he took. He finished with nine points. He did have nine rebounds, but could muster only six assists.
Six assists? He will have that many before the first quarter is over on Saturday night.
And such is the conundrum that defines Rajon Rondo. Celtics fans have come to accept that there will be nights when he seems detached or uninterested. Or that he will do something stupid (end of Game 1, Atlanta) or that he will make a clueless play at a critical time of a big game (end of Game 2, Philadelphia).
But he is almost always forgiven because he usually comes back strong after a curiously subpar outing and is universally recognized as the most critical player on the Celtics, especially on offense. So we've learned to live with the real Rondo and the Stepford Rondo. In all honesty, what choice do we have? It's not like Keyon Dooling is going to step in and take his job.
But if you've ever wondered why on earth the Celtics would explore trading Rondo -- and they have, despite all claims to the contrary -- it is not because of his limitations as a player. It's because of his limitations as a leader, which he should be by now, even on this team.
Leaders don't throw a ball at a referee. Leaders don't bump a referee. Leaders don't show up when they feel like it. That the Celtics rely so heavily on Rondo to set the pace makes him beyond critical to their offense.
But on a night when they could have, some might say should have, advanced, he had six assists and the team scored 75 points. He had at least 13 assists in each of the previous five playoff games. The last time he had fewer than six assists was on March 9, when he had five in just 26 minutes in a home rout of Portland. They didn't need him that night.
But they sure did on Wednesday. And there was every reason to expect the Rondo from Game 5 would show up. He had been spectacular in that game, especially in the second half, with Rivers saluting his star by saying it was his best overall game of the season. Rondo had it. He imposed his will on the game, he gave the Celtics leadership and direction, a purpose, and the team ran away to a dominating victory.
Where was that Rondo?
"I don't know; he wanted to play well," Rivers said. "I thought he attacked early and missed some shots. He probably got caught in between himself, because he saw that the offense wasn't working, so I thought he was kind of trying to orchestrate the offense and trying to go, and he probably got caught in the middle tonight. It happens. He'll be better."
He doesn't have to be better, Doc. He's good enough. He has to want to be there and seize the moment. He just was named to the All-NBA third team -- he got four first-place votes -- so it's not a question of him being better.
My guess is that we'll see Rondo 2.0 on Saturday night. And if that is indeed the case, all will be forgiven as the Celtics contemplate another series. But it's still fair to wonder: What does it take to fully engage this complicated but immensely talented young man?