Maybe it's the challenge of going up against Steve Nash. Maybe it's the fact that the opponent is the team that traded away his draft rights for what amounted to cash considerations. Regardless of the reason, Boston Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo always seems to have a little extra hop in his step against the Phoenix Suns.
When the Celtics and Suns last met in February, Rondo erupted for a career-high 32 points to go with 10 assists, six rebounds and three steals in a 128-108 thumping in Phoenix. It proved to be quite a 23rd-birthday celebration for Boston's young floor general.
The teams meet again for the first of two meetings this season Friday night at the TD Garden.
Rondo's offensive explosion in February might have been a bit of a message to the Suns and former coach Mike D'Antoni, who were reportedly skeptical of Rondo's shooting ability, which might have been one reason Phoenix decided to move the pick -- the 21st overall in the 2006 draft -- instead of rolling the dice with a young guard who would have served as Nash's backup.
The Celtics sent a 2007 first-round pick to the Suns in exchange for the rights to Rondo, Brian Grant, and cash considerations. A year later, the Suns traded that pick -- the 24th overall, which wound up being Rudy Fernandez -- and James Jones to Portland for cash considerations.
Earlier this week, the Celtics and Rondo agreed to a five-year, $55 million contract extension that made Rondo a fixture of one of the league's top franchises for years to come.
As captain Paul Pierce said after Rondo's big game last season in Phoenix: "As Rondo goes, this team goes. If he plays as well as he's playing, then there's no way we can lose."
Pierce didn't lie. With Rondo thriving to start the 2009-10 campaign, the Celtics are undefeated with a 6-0 mark. Rondo's play at both ends of the court are a big reason for that success and Friday's matchup with Nash will be the latest in a series of stiff tests Rondo has faced at the start of the year.
Rondo is averaging 9.2 points, 9.7 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 2.8 steals per game. When his teammates are shooting the ball well -- as they did in a 118-90 thrashing of the Bulls last week -- Rondo is content to play distributor; he had 16 assists and two points in that triumph. When the offense has struggled -- as it did in Wednesday's triumph over the Timberwolves -- Rondo elevated his own output, scoring a season-high 18 points with 6 assists.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers doesn't see a ceiling with Rondo, which should leave Suns fans wondering what could have been.
"Rondo is going to be a much better player," Rivers said. "He's 24 years old; he has not even scratched the surface yet. He'll keep improving his shot, his court awareness; he's just going to keep getting better and better."
Rondo and the Celtics have won the last three meetings between the teams, with Rondo scoring in double figures in each game.
This isn't the first time the Suns sent a championship-caliber point guard to Boston. Phoenix shipped Dennis Johnson to the Celtics in exchange for Rick Robey in 1983. That's still regarded as one of the grandest heists Red Auerbach orchestrated, and remains one of the most-lamented transactions in Suns history.
Johnson thrived in Boston and helped the Celtics win two NBA titles, while Robey spent three injury-riddled and lackluster seasons in Phoenix before retiring.
Dudley back in town
Former Boston College standout Jared Dudley seems to be breaking through with the Suns this season. Dudley, who was selected by the Charlotte Bobcats with the 22nd pick in the 2007 draft, was traded to Phoenix after little more than a season in Charlotte.
Through five games, the 6-foot-7, 225-pound forward nicknamed "Junkyard Dog" for his toughness, is averaging a career-best 8.2 points and four rebounds in 21.4 minutes per game. Phoenix recently exercised its 2010-2011 team option on Dudley.
Dudley has struggled against the Celtics, however. His last visit to Boston came in January, when he was limited to two points and two rebounds in seven minutes, and was the victim of a vicious baseline slam by Boston's Bill Walker.
On his Twitter page (@JaredDudley619), Dudley announced Thursday: "OK y'all ur boy is back in Boston … I'm going back where it all started BC … The team has a practice I gotta go show them love … I'm back."
Phoenix (4-1) is averaging a Western Conference-best 111.2 points per game, but its defense has been one of the worst in the league, giving up 107.6 points per contest.
Both the Celtics and Suns have shot 50.1 percent from the floor, second-best in the league behind San Antonio (50.8). The difference is on the defensive side, where the Celtics have limited opponents to 40.7 percent, while Phoenix is allowing 47.1 percent.
Nash is averaging a team-best 19.6 points and 10.8 assists per game, but the Suns currently boast six players averaging double figures in points, including ageless Grant Hill at 14 points and a team-best 8.8 rebounds per game.