- Jackie MacMullan, ESPN Senior Writer
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WALTHAM, Mass. -- The winning streak is now at six straight and it's impossible to dispute the obvious: The Celtics are playing better without Rajon Rondo.
All the numbers, from defensive efficiency to offensive production, suggest this. Jeff Green, Courtney Lee, Jason Terry and Leandro Barbosa are playing more freely. Kevin Garnett has never looked so efficient. Paul Pierce is playing like he hopped into the Way Back Machine.
The ball movement has been superb and transition opportunities have been more plentiful.
And, yet, conventional wisdom persists. The Boston Celtics can't possibly be better off without their All-Star point guard.
Let Celtics boss Danny Ainge take it from here.
"We are different without him," Ainge explained. "We're running better now because five guys are running. Honestly, I think we rely on Rondo too much.
"For example: With Rondo out, you see Jeff Green grab a rebound and push it up the court himself. If he gets a rebound when Rondo is playing, he just gives it to him.
"That's not Rondo's fault. It's only because he's a great player and guys see him in that role."
So how can Rondo rectify that when he returns next season?
"So, when Jeff Green gets the rebound," Ainge replied, "Rondo has to take off down the court in that situation. Then Jeff can take two dribbles and hit Rondo. Now you see Rondo attack the basket in the open court. He is unguardable in those situations."
Theories have abounded regarding Boston's resurgence since Rondo was lost for the season after suffering a torn ACL in his right knee Jan. 25. One suggests Pierce and Garnett recognized the sense of urgency going forward, particularly if they wanted to keep their core together. Nothing like some good trade talk to motivate veterans.
There has also been some chatter that a couple of teammates feel unshackled now that Rondo isn't dominating the ball. Terry and Green, in particular, have flourished offensively in the point guard's absence.
Ainge had hoped Rondo would undergo surgery this past week but instead is seeking second and third opinions from Dr. James Andrews, who repaired NFL star Adrian Peterson's torn ACL, and Dr. Richard Steadman, the renowned surgeon from Vail, Colo. Dr. Brian McKeon, the Celtics' team physician who performed knee surgery on Garnett, Kendrick Perkins and Tony Allen, has also been consulting Rondo and could wind up doing the surgery.
According to Ainge, the question is not just who will do the procedure, but also how it will be done. There are a variety of ways, he said, to repair a torn ACL, and that is information Rondo is sifting through right now.
"One doctor will tell you, 'You need to use the patella tendon,' and another will say, 'Basketball players who use the patella will have tendinitis when they come back,'" Ainge said. "And another doctor will say, 'When we get in there, we'll be able to see if we can attach the hamstring, and sometimes intertwine that with a cadaver tendon.' There's a lot of different methods, and I think Rajon is just trying to figure out which is best for him."
Ainge said he expects Rondo to have surgery "within the next week."
In the meantime, the point guard remains in the Boston area watching the games from home and staying in contact with the team. Ainge acknowledged it would be close to impossible for Rondo to have missed all the discussion regarding his absence, but added, "I don't think he pays a ton of attention to it."
"He's not one of those guys who reads a lot," Ainge said. "I do think he sees the team winning and playing really well. Rondo is a terrific talent. So the question is, 'Is Rondo doing this, or are we allowing Rondo to do this?' Are we as players, as coaches, as management, relying on him too much?"
Ainge said the team's focus during the offseason was to alter its style of play so players wouldn't be so dependent on Rondo.
"We didn't want to wear him out," Ainge said. "We didn't want him to play 42 minutes a game, and we didn't want him to be a crutch for everyone else. We wanted to limit his minutes so he'd be fresh in the playoffs.
"I didn't want to bring in a 'quote' veteran point guard to play the same way. I think we run into some of the same things with Paul.
"Paul is often a crutch for us. We get into the fourth quarter of games and we give the ball to Paul and we get out of Paul's way, and we run pick-and-rolls and it hurts us. The ball stops moving, and we have good players who don't really participate.
"It's the easy way out. Even since Rondo's been out, we've had instances where we've relied too heavily on Paul. In the Clippers game, it didn't work out too well, but then Paul hit the big shot.
"But there's no question, in that fourth quarter of that game we got bogged down. The first three quarters were a clinic on how basketball should be played.
"It's a fine line, right? You want the ball in your best player's hands, you want them to make decisions, but at the same time, we don't have LeBron, and we don't have Kevin Durant.
"So, without a guy like that, you have to rely on the Courtney Lees, the Jason Terrys, the Jeff Greens, the Avery Bradleys, guys who can make plays and make shots.
"Paul is not what he was five years ago. And Rajon? That's not his game, to take over in the fourth quarter, to have the ball in his hands and to try and score 15 straight points.
"The more movement we have, the harder we are to guard. If we make our shot clock 8 seconds, we struggle. If we don't ask the defense to guard us for nearly 20 seconds of every possession, we are playing into their hands."
Rondo undoubtedly sees what we see: a team that is more fluid, more free, more cohesive. The Celtics will move forward without him -- coach Doc Rivers politely but tersely declared before practice Wednesday he will no longer be discussing his shelved point guard -- but No. 9 remains the elephant in the room, albeit with 7 percent body fat.
So will the intelligent, talented, stubborn floor leader watch and learn during his unplanned hiatus? Is he introspective enough to look within and ask himself, "What can I do differently?"
Ainge last talked with him Thursday night, two hours before tipoff against the Lakers.
"He said he was coming into the game," Ainge said.
Rondo never did show up, but his team did.
3dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann