Celtics coach Doc Rivers is enduring some scrutiny because he dared to acknowledge what's already well known: NBA players care a heck of a lot about stats and streaks.
With 98 seconds remaining in Boston's lopsided loss to the Detroit Pistons on Sunday, Rivers called a timeout and attempted to draw up a play with the goal of getting point guard Rajon Rondo his 10th assist in order to extend his lengthy double-digit assist streak.
Ironically, Rondo turned the ball over trying to set the play into motion, but he fed Jared Sullinger for a 21-foot jumper with 51 seconds to play for the 10th helper that moved the once-in-jeopardy streak to 34 games.
Rondo's assist stretch currently sits third all-time in NBA history and he is creeping closer to John Stockton (37) and Magic Johnson (46).
But the question today for those obsessed with the moral integrity of the game is whether Rivers and the Celtics committed some sort of transgression by focusing on what most acknowledge is a largely superficial mark.
A record is a record, and Rivers, a former NBA point guard, has noted it's something special for any modern guard to be talked about among the likes of Stockton and Johnson. But Rivers has also suggested that neither he nor Rondo will lose any sleep when the streak ends.
So why risk the ire of basketball purists over the pursuit of a streak that's hardly at the top of Johnson's career accomplishments (or Boston's season goals)?
For Rivers, it likely came down to something as simple as this: Rondo deserved to have 10 assists Sunday, but the heavy-legged Celtics front-rimmed everything they put up. So with nothing else to play for in a lopsided game, he dangled his only remaining carrot.
Let's remember that Kevin Garnett was no longer on the floor, and neither was Paul Pierce, though it's worth noting that Pierce had retreated to the locker room during that late-game timeout after tweaking an ankle. There, of course, was a health risk with Rondo, who was playing only his second game back from an ankle spain that caused him to sit out Thursday's national TV tilt in Brooklyn.
In a game that the Celtics were trailing by 20, there's a case to be made for protecting your stars and letting younger guys get some run (though, with two of Boston's three rookies now with the Maine Red Claws of the D-League, there weren't any young players to trot out there).
"Why not? You guys keep talking about it, so I figured I'd give him a shot at it," Rivers said of intentionally gunning to extend Rondo's streak. "It's funny, the harder they tried, the worse we got at that. What did it come down to -- what, 50 seconds or something? Jared made two jumpers. I think Jared gave him it, so that was good. When I called the timeout I said, 'Guys, we're going to lose the game, by the way. Let's not play crazy, but if we can get him two more, let's do it. If not, that's it.' First time we've done that."
And it might be the last.
Rivers is a firm believer in the Basketball Gods. He brings them up often. If he scorned them with this act of late-game stat-padding, then the streak will surely be smote in the coming days.
But if there's some larger lessons to be learned here, let's focus on any of the following:
1) We're obsessed with the No. 10 in sports. We've seen ridiculous pursuits of double digits, as highlighted by the head-slapping antics of players like Ricky Davis and Andray Blatche during their quests for an elusive triple-double. Sometimes we need to take a step back and remember that a 34-game streak with 9-plus assists is no less dazzling than one with 10-plus. Heck, Rondo now owns the record with 29 straight games with 11-plus assists and even that required a phone call to the league to fix an assist that was originally missed in Milwaukee last week. Which brings us to maybe a bigger issue.
2) The assist statistic is seriously flawed. It's a subjective stat that's left at the discretion of courtside stat-keepers. Consider this: In three of Rondo's last five games, stat-keepers appear to have missed at least one assist. Yes, one in Milwaukee was corrected after the game with the goal of extending Rondo's 11-plus streak to the record length -- and the casual fan probably doesn't even know about it because, again, we're obsessed with the No. 10.
But cue up Sunday night's game on your DVR and watch with 7:01 remaining in the first quarter. Rondo delivered a hand-off to Brandon Bass, who immediately hit a mid-range jumper. No assist was given; one was deserved. If the stat-keeper doesn't miss that, we probably never endure this next-day handwringing.
Mind you, it's a two-way street. Rondo was toasted for his 20-assist effort in Saturday's win over the Raptors, his sixth career regular-season performance with 20-plus assists and second this season (only five other Celtics in history have gone for 20-plus, and that includes that guy Cousy in the backcourt).
All six of Rondo's regular-season 20-plus efforts have come at TD Garden, where stat-keepers tend to make up for the ones he's docked on the road. Again, the assist definition is open to interpretation, but there was one play on Saturday in which Pierce dribbled through the Toronto team picture for a layup -- Rondo probably didn't deserve that assist. (Imagine the horror if he had finished with an unsightly 19 assists!)
3) Getting 10 assists is hard. As easy as Rondo has made the chore look during this 34-game stretch, he's finished with 10 assists in four of his last five games (with the Milwaukee instance later corrected to 11). Only one player in the league is averaging double-digit assists other than Rondo and that's Clippers guard Chris Paul at 10.2. The next closest is Greivis Vasquez at 8.9. Assisting ain't easy. Which is why, streak or no streak, it's somewhat insane what Rondo is doing on the court since March of last year.
A lengthy streak might help remind those filling out MVP ballots in April just how good Rondo has been. Truth is, he doesn't need a streak to prove that.
But, hey, it's good to have something to shout about on an off day. The Celtics are 6-4 and have issues far greater to worry about than Rondo's assist totals.
While we're here, what's the likelihood that Rondo gets past Johnson's mark? Seven of Boston's next 10 games are at home, which should aid Rondo if he gets some friendly home-turf scoring. But the increased notoriety could make it more challenging, as opposing teams, particularly in blowout situations, might make a concerted effort to deny him the mark. (Then again, that's easier said than done.)
If he stays healthy and maintains the streak, Rondo would match Stockton on Sunday in Orlando. He'd be on pace to go for the record on Dec. 18 in Chicago, the finale of a daunting three-game road trip that includes stops in Houston and San Antonio.
The one thing this streak cannot become is a distraction, particularly as Boston seeks consistency in its own play. The Celtics just are not good enough at the moment to be focused on an individual accomplishment.
They got caught looking that way for 98 seconds Sunday night, but it would be a surprise if it happened again. Instead of lamenting why the streak is still around, maybe we should simply marvel that we're even talking about it.