As Rajon Rondo transforms into an NBA All-Star, he’s relentlessly probed on his point-guard pedigree. The way he plays the position is so distinctive, it defies a clear historical context. Whom do you play like, they ask him. He just shrugs. He didn’t watch basketball as a kid, just played it. He’s never gone back to the old tapes, the progression of the generations before him.
“I’ve watched more “Roll Bounce” and “ATL” than the old point guards,” Rondo confessed with a sheepish laugh on Monday.
Those happen to be the “Hoosiers” and “Hoop Dreams” of roller-skating movies, and Rondo watches them over and over to study and mimic the moves. The fastest-rising young guard in the NBA has a longstanding love of roller skating, a devotion so deep he can be found in the summer circling the rink at Robben’s Roost Roller Skating in Louisville.
Those movies taught him all those moves for trio rhythmic roller skating, where it’s common to watch Rondo cutting it up with two partners. He isn’t trying to be smart, when he insists, “The cardio workout you get from that, I’m more sore than after playing basketball. Sixteen times around the rink is a mile. And you get real tired doing trios.”
Rondo is so strong, so fit, so polished, it’s like he’s playing point guard with those wheels under his Reeboks. This season, he’s transforming the Celtics. A year ago, they were a championship team. They won 66 games. They were fantastic. Only now, they’re better. A staggering 26-2 entering Tuesday's home game vs. the Philadelphia 76ers, they’re chasing historic dominance. They’ll try to break a franchise record with their 19th straight victory Tuesday; then they'll meet the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday for the most hyped regular-season game in years.
Rondo was good on that championship run that demolished L.A. in the NBA Finals, but he’s blossoming into an all-star now. Across this roster, there are reasons the Celtics are even better than last season, but Rondo has transcended this team, averaging 11.3 points, 7.5 assists, 5.0 rebounds and 2.4 steals. With the way the Celtics are destroying teams, he's playing less and less in the fourth quarter.
Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen are impossible to defend, but Rondo’s rise has turned the Celtics into something extraordinary. He is a 22-year-old point guard with fleet feet, long arms and wiry strength that makes him a menace everywhere on the floor.
“He reminds me of the way the game was played 15 or 20 years ago,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers told the Boston Herald. “This is the way point guards played back then. When he runs the pick and roll, he’s not thinking of how he can score. He’s looking for the way to run the team in the best way possible.”
When Danny Ainge was reshaping the Celtics in the summer of 2007, there were two untouchable players on his roster: Pierce and Rondo. The Seattle Sonics held out for Rondo in the Ray Allen trade, but Ainge wouldn’t budge. Minnesota GM Kevin McHale tried desperately to get him included in the Kevin Garnett package, but it was a deal-breaker. His name kept popping up in reports, but Ainge called him that summer and told him that he was going nowhere.
“I mean, I was a rookie who had just lost 58 games,” Rondo said. “It means a lot that they believed in me.”
Garnett embraced him right away because he loved how Rondo never left the gym, never stopped working. Rondo’s job had changed in the most dramatic way. Suddenly, he was playing traffic cop for the Big Three. As he distributed the ball, Rondo would count the total of shots his teammates were getting on a night. He wanted balance. He wanted order. When Allen struggled in the playoffs, Rondo became a bigger scorer. When Allen’s touch returned in the Finals, Rondo had a 16-assist performance in Game 2.
Whatever they needed, he gave them. Now, Rondo is playing brilliant basketball. He had 26 points against the New York Knicks and never played in the fourth quarter. Opponents can’t leave the Big Three to help on Rondo; he is just killing them. No one goes end to end faster “except LeBron [James],” he said. “Long strides.”
The All-Star Game is on his mind, but he doesn’t dare discuss it. In the Celtics’ culture of KG, only the team matters. Rondo listens to the rest of the NBA talk about free agency in 2010 and hustling spots on the 2012 Olympic team, and it’s just a blur of noise. Yes, Rondo understands there’s a guard job open with Chris Paul and Deron Williams for the London Games, but he doesn’t talk about it.
“I want to win NBA championships,” Rondo said. “I want to win three more while we’ve got the Big Three around. I’ve got a chance to play with great players here, and I don’t want to waste any time thinking about anything else.”
Before the season, Rivers told him that just two starting point guards in history had an NBA title within their first two years in the league: Magic Johnson and Tony Parker. There are better young point guards in basketball, but none as fortunate as Rondo.
“I want to be the point guard who can say he’s won more championships at a young age than anyone ever,” he said.
Rajon Rondo is turning a great team into an unstoppable force, those young legs on skates threatening to lap the league.