Tuesday, August 24, 2010
Another Celtic falls flat on Team USA
By Peter May ESPNBoston.com
Maybe we should have known something was fishy when Rajon Rondo somehow went from starter to DNP-coach's decision in the space of 24 hours during USA Basketball's exhibition tour in Europe. He had not registered a DNP-CD in any meaningful game for anyone since the first couple of months of the 2006-07 season, when coach Doc Rivers sat the rookie four times in the Celtics' first 23 games.
Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski sat Rondo for Sunday's exhibition game against Spain, one night after starting him against Lithuania. By then, Rondo could read the writing on the wall, telling ESPN's Chris Sheridan that he felt he could be the final cut for the 2010 world championship team.
After Rajon Rondo looked bad against Lithuania and registered a DNP against Spain, the writing was on the wall.
Well, he was ... and he wasn't. Rondo withdrew his name from consideration, or if you're cynical, he jumped before he was pushed. He will not be on the U.S. team when it starts the tournament on Saturday.
Rondo would have been a curious selection for an international team because he has no reliable outside shot and can't make free throws. Now, he will head home instead of to Turkey, where the United States will try to win a gold medal in the world championships for the first time since 1994.
For the Celtics, it's another example of one of their players not exactly living the high life in international competition.
Rondo was the fourth Celtic to play for a USA Basketball team in international competition. Two won gold, although Larry Bird was pretty much an afterthought on the one and only Dream Team in 1992. Dominique Wilkins -- yes, it's true -- was still into his Norma Desmond incarnation when he played on the 1994 world championship team. And Paul Pierce, well, more on him later. Suffice it to say when the Pierce autobiography comes out, there won't be a lot of pages devoted to Indianapolis 2002. He came back from that tournament with a smear that would take years to erase.
But back to the news du jour. Rondo went back and forth before deciding to join Uncle Sam's latest international entry. But he brought some winning experience to the group; he, Chauncey Billups and Lamar Odom were the only players on the team to have won an NBA title. Rondo's value to the Celtics is indisputable and has been since the team refused to put him into deals for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett -- and got both guys anyway.
But Rondo had no such cachet with the team that USA Basketball will send onto the floor in Turkey for the worlds. He did start the exhibition game against Lithuania on Saturday, but he played only a shade more than 14 minutes and had two points (on 1-of-4 shooting) and four turnovers. The United States scored seven points in the first quarter. Then, he was given the DNP-CD against Spain on Sunday along with Kevin Love and Danny Granger. Krzyzewski said by way of explanation -- sort of -- that Granger and Rondo were "veterans" and that he wanted to look at other players.
But Krzyzewski already had Derrick Rose (whose two late free throws were the difference-makers against Spain) and Russell Westbrook at the point guard position, not to mention the estimable Billups. Rondo did give Team USA a defensive presence on the perimeter, but that wasn't enough.
Let's get back to history. Bird was injured (back) throughout most of 1992. His inclusion on the original Dream Team was as much a testament to his spectacular career; he was a shell of himself by that time. He played in only two of the six games at the Olympic qualifier in Portland, Ore., and although he participated in all eight games in Barcelona, he was the ninth-leading scorer on the team. Soon after getting his gold medal, Bird retired from the NBA at age 35.
"I just remember lying on my bed in Portland and saying, 'God, just get me through the Olympics and I'll give this up and move on to something else,''' he told me.
Wilkins won gold as a member of the second international team with NBA players, the 1994 world championship group. And if you check USA Basketball's records, Wilkins is listed as being a member of the Celtics, even though he had yet to play a game for them.
In the summer of 1994, Wilkins was signed as a free agent in one of the first moves made by new basketball operations boss M.L. Carr, who had replaced Dave Gavitt. But the Wilkins era in Boston lasted one forgettable season. He arrived out of shape, and that did not sit well with coach Chris Ford. He played and acted as if he still was a major NBA star, even though his Human Highlight Film days were long gone. Then, in the summer of 1995, and the NBA in a middle of a lockout, he signed with a team in Greece. One and done. Nary a tear was shed, and the Celtics privately rejoiced.
By 2002, the United States was still undefeated in international play using NBA players, having swept to gold in the 1996 and 2000 Olympics. (The 1998 world championship team did not have NBA players thanks to a lockout.) But the world clearly was catching up, as evidenced by a near loss to Lithuania in the Sydney Olympics. With the world championships scheduled for Indianapolis, Team USA put together a group of quasi-NBA stars and a few Pacers for good measure and local support. No one from the victorious 2000 team participated. Among those who did: Pierce.
By this time, Pierce had played four NBA seasons and was coming off a season in which the Celtics ended a long playoff drought with a surprising run to the Eastern Conference finals. He had made his first appearance in an NBA All-Star Game as well as earning his first berth on an All-NBA team, making the third unit.
But his experience in Indianapolis was an unmitigated disaster, and despite being on Jerry Colangelo's first list of players to possibly compete in the 2006 worlds and other international events, Pierce has never again suited up for the motherland. Although Pierce didn't play poorly in Indianapolis, he and close buddy Baron Davis were deemed to be "disruptive" by at least one USA Basketball official. The U.S. team became the first with NBA players to lose an international game, falling to Argentina. It also lost to Spain and Yugoslavia (basically, Serbia) and finished an astonishing sixth.
Arguably, it took the 2008 NBA Finals to finally rehabilitate Pierce. Until then, he was sometimes seen as a selfish player with an inflated opinion of his game (he had plenty of company there) who exhibited horrible body language on the floor. He didn't do himself any favors with his ridiculous behavior in the 2005 playoffs against Indiana, appearing at a news conference with a fake bandage around his jaw. He feuded with Rivers that year as well.
Now, of course, all is simpatico between the two. And he was named the Most Valuable Player of the 2008 Finals.
Rondo, too, clashed with Rivers as a rookie. But the two are fine now. USA Basketball, however, is another animal altogether. After his DNP, we wondered how Rondo would view his summer of 2010, especially if it was a signal that he was going to be the final cut.
He never let it get that far. And he'll have plenty of time to commiserate with Pierce next season.
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.