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BOSTON -- After watching Rajon Rondo flirt with a triple-double (19 points, 10 assists, 6 rebounds) as his Boston Celtics defeated the Orlando Magic 96-89 on Sunday, coach Brad Stevens was asked what it was like to see "dynamic" Rondo for the first time up close.
"I've seen pretty darn close, he's just wearing the rust off a little bit," Stevens said. "But yeah, he was good. I was not surprised. Watching him play for so many years, I've probably caught all the really good games because that's when you're paying most attention in the playoffs and everything else, when you're far away from this."
|In addition to his 19 points and 10 assists, Rajon Rondo took control when the Celtics needed it most.|
Ah yes, Coach, that's what the locals sometimes refer to as "national TV" Rondo, a triple-double machine under the brightest lights. And, in a way, you got him on Sunday because the local broadcast was simulcast on NBA TV, given it was the only game on the league's docket on a day dominated by the gridiron.
After Rondo displayed bits of rust over his first six games back, the most common term used to describe his performance Sunday was "his old self." Rondo certainly looked at ease quarterbacking the offense, particularly late in the game, while handing out 10 assists as Boston shot 50 percent from the floor. And he was uber-efficient with his own shooting, connecting on 9 of 11 attempts for 19 points.
Maybe the most encouraging of that scoring output came midway through the fourth quarter after the Magic had rallied within one. Rondo came off a side pick-and-roll and split two defenders while rushing into the paint. Even with Orlando big man Nikola Vucevic shuffling to stay in front of him, Rondo arced a majestic running hook shot that caught nothing but twine and left Celtics legend Tommy Heinsohn cackling in delight at the idea of a point guard with a serviceable hook shot.
It's the sort of touch that has been missing from some of Rondo's signature floaters and often odd-angle attempts during the infancy of his return to game action. Rondo appeared to play with a different sort of confidence Sunday.
For his part, Rondo didn't overhype his effort.
"I felt pretty good, as far as moving-wise, able to get to the rim and finally put some balls in the hole," he said. Pressed on the topic, he added, "It's just one game. I made a lot of my shots. But I feel more comfortable around the basket. A lot of my flip shots went in today. But, like I said, I take it one day at a time."
Operating on four days' rest after last playing on Tuesday in New York, Rondo looked fresh and invigorated out of the gates. He totaled a team-high 13 first-half points on 6-of-7 shooting with 4 assists, 3 rebounds and 2 steals over 15 minutes.
The only thing that slowed him was foul trouble. He tried to draw a charge on Orlando's Victor Oladipo early in the third quarter, but instead got whistled. Less than a minute later, Rondo ran at Arron Afflalo in transition, but didn't contest a layup trying to avoid the foul. Instead, he got called for maybe a brush of contact and was out of the game just 128 seconds into the third frame.
But when Rondo was on the floor in the second half, he took control of the game. And every time the Magic made a charge, it was Rondo who calmed the Celtics and helped extend the lead.
Orlando surged to within two with 2:30 to play, but Rondo calmly dribbled the ball up the court in a hushed Garden, caught a pick from Brandon Bass and confidently drilled a 17-foot elbow jumper as Orlando refused to fight over picks against him.
In transition after an Orlando miss on the ensuing possession, Rondo fed Jeff Green with a cross-court pass that led to a long jumper. An offensive foul gave Boston the ball back and the pick-and-roll created an open jumper for Bass, who knocked it down as the lead ballooned back to eight in little more than a minute's time.
"You just feel like you're really under control, the way that he was playing late," Stevens said. "I thought he put a lot of pressure on their defense because they went under almost every pick-and-roll the whole day with him. And he made a bunch of shots behind it, so you always felt like you were going to get a good look that was a high percentage [shot], with the way he was shooting the ball today.
"That's one of those things that, when you don't play for a year, that shot's probably a little bit rusty. But now that he's seven games back, he's a very, very good shooter who has put in more time to be a good shooter, better than his statistics in the past would say. So I feel really good about him pulling up and making those shots."
Jared Sullinger gushed about how Rondo played like the Rondo "we always loved and adored." Bass noted how "Rondo is a coach on the floor and he's leading us. It felt great."
Just as it was prudent not to overreact when Rondo struggled initially in his return, this shouldn't be the benchmark moving forward. Let's remember, too, that Orlando is among the league's basement dwellers and was missing Jameer Nelson. The February schedule, however, is very forgiving, which will allow Rondo some additional time to bounce back from games. Even he noted after Sunday's win how the four days off helped not only his knee, but the other achy parts of his body while getting re-acclimated to game activity.
Still, Sunday's game was a fun reminder of the influence Rondo can impart on the game. The Celtics haven't had a 50 percent shooting night in nearly two months, but Rondo's efforts in creating offense for both himself and his teammates helped Boston accomplish that feat against Orlando.
The Celtics were desperate for a win, given their recent struggles. They had been 0-6 in games that Rondo appeared in. Sunday's victory gives the player and team a little something to build off.
Stevens is hoping to get plenty more glimpses of the dynamic Rondo he saw Sunday.