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BOSTON -- Point guard Rajon Rondo thrives on his ability to see things before they happen. The 22 assists he handed out as part of his latest eyebrow-raising triple-double Wednesday night in the Boston Celtics' 105-103 triumph over the San Antonio Spurs are evidence of that.
But Rondo's power of clairvoyance began long before he stepped onto the TD Garden court for a 43-minute shift. Rondo had fully anticipated another night of working against a sagging defense, players gleefully running under screens to prevent him from doing any damage by driving to the basket.
So following the Celtics' morning walk-through, Rondo spent extra time working on his midrange jumper, spraying shots over invisible Manu Ginobilis.
|Rajon Rondo not only sliced the Spurs' defense with 22 assists, he burned them with some key jumpers in the fourth quarter of the Celtics' 105-103 win.|
"We watched film today while working out, but I was upstairs and I watched Rondo take shot after shot after shot after shot," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "You could see himself mentally getting ready for what he thought was going to happen, and it did. They went under [screens on the pick-and-roll] and he stepped up and made shots."
After handing out nine third-quarter assists to fuel Boston's feverish second-half shooting, Rondo was essentially challenged by the Spurs to make shots of his own. San Antonio apparently decided it had had enough of being burned by Rondo's ability to kick to an open man.
After putting up only five shots over the first three quarters, Rondo connected on 4-of-5 fourth-quarter shots, including a pair of mid-range jumpers as San Antonio tried to rally. He scored eight of his 12 points in the quarter, keying the Celtics in what amounted to a race to triple digits.
For all his talents, Rondo's weaknesses are pretty well known -- perimeter jumpers and free throws. Last season, he connected on a mere 29.2 percent of shots from beyond 16 feet, shooting 33 percent (60-of-183) from 16 to 23 feet.
This season? He's shooting 44.4 percent from mid-range (28-of-63), hell-bent on not allowing teams to leave him open. It's what Rivers calls the "next step" in the continued development of his all-world point guard.
Rondo picked a heck of a regular-season stage on Wednesday.
After the Spurs had rallied within a bucket with eight minutes to play, Ginobili stood five feet off Rondo and challenged him to shoot from the left wing. Rondo stepped up and drilled a 19-footer.
Thanks in part to a Boston turnover, Ginobili soon answered with a 3-pointer to make it a one-point game. Rondo set up the offense at the other end of the floor, and again Ginobili offered a Rondo-sized space between them. As Jermaine O'Neal approached with a screen, Ginobili scooted under to prevent a drive, so Rondo stepped back and canned an 18-footer.
His point sufficiently made, Rondo reverted to his bread-and-butter, forcing a steal, then getting out in front the other way, where he hit one of those impossible-angle layups that only someone with a pool stick should be able to generate, his top-of-the-glass lay-in preventing a chasing Tim Duncan from blocking the shot.
"The best shot we can get on a possession, that's what I'm taking," Rondo shrugged.
Rondo's best-shot theory helped him have a hand in more than half of Boston's offense, his points and assists combining to generate 56 points. For good measure, he led the team in rebounding (10), made six steals and added a spectacular first-half block, swatting George Hill's attempt at a driving layup by nearly pinning it to the backboard. He settled for grabbing the ball off the glass and feeding Shaquille O'Neal, who got fouled going up for a dunk at the other end.
All this on a night when he smiled and suggested he was playing at "79 percent." With Rondo having missed seven straight games because of a sprained right ankle suffered in mid-December, Rivers said he'd do his best to limit Rondo's minutes following his return Sunday in Toronto. Two games later, Rondo played a whopping 43 minutes, but said afterward that neither his ankle nor his hamstring or plantar fasciitis (both of which have bothered him at points of the season) was an issue.
"I was able to push off a little more," Rondo said. The Spurs noticed.
It's come to the point that we are numb to Rondo's exploits.
Earlier this season he produced a triple-double of 10 points, 10 rebounds and 24 assists against the New York Knicks. On Wednesday night, Rondo put up nearly the same numbers against the team with the best record in the NBA.
The Celtics shot 61.3 percent from the field, the highest figure the Spurs have allowed this season, with the majority of those makes coming outside the paint. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Boston made 28 field goals outside of 15 feet -- its highest total of the season -- and 17 of those makes came off Rondo assists (he hit three others himself).
While the Spurs will readily admit they're struggling defensively, Rondo made a team known for its championship-caliber defense look mediocre. And not just with his passing.
So maybe it was Rivers who was the most clairvoyant. After Monday's Celtics win over the Timberwolves, in which Minnesota sagged off Rondo much of the night, Boston's coach suggested Rondo would see this type of defense often, particularly in the playoffs.
And Rivers declared that Rondo could (and would) make those mid-range shots.
"We wanted him to take shots; that's the next step for him," Rivers said after Monday's game. "He can make those shots. That's what's so frustrating to our guys: [Rondo] passed up at least six of them today, maybe seven. Rondo can make those shots. We just have to get him to take them after a miss. Because the way [the Timberwolves] guarded him tonight is the way they're going to guard him in the playoffs.
"I see him every day in practice make that shot. Two years ago, I didn't say that. He's an elbow shooter. He can make them all day. He will make them all day. We've just got to make him keep shooting."
On Wednesday, Rondo kept shooting. The next step has begun.
Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.