LOS ANGELES – Four days before the start of the NBA Finals, Rajon Rondo’s(notes) family continued their long tradition of gathering for Sunday brunch. Rondo had signed a five-year, $55 million contract extension before the start of the season, which more than afforded him the opportunity to treat his mother, brother, sister and niece to any of Boston’s top restaurants. Instead, Rondo settled on Texas Roadhouse, a chain with a franchise in Danvers, Mass., that features line dancing by its employees every half hour.
“His entire family comes in here with him and they eat our chicken critters,” said restaurant manager Alexis Lograsso. “It’s not expensive stuff.”
Said Rondo: “It was a good ’ol time.”
Rondo has helped lead the NBA’s most storied franchise within four wins of its 18th championship, so if he prefers chicken critters over a nice filet … well, all the better. Neither Rondo’s success nor the increasing glare of the national spotlight has beefed up his appetite, only everyone’s opinion of his game.
Rondo averaged 14.3 points and eight assists this season and set franchise season records for assists and steals. And after averaging 16.7 points, 10 assists and 2.1 assists so far in the playoffs – and memorably diving for a steal and lay-in against the Orlando Magic – some people have wondered whether Rondo now belongs in the debate for the best point guard in the NBA.
Rondo has no problem choosing himself.
“I think I prove it every night,” he said. “I believe I have the upper hand almost every night in matchups. In the situation I’m in, a couple other point guards might say I dominate the ball, but they dominate the ball way more than I do.”
This much is for sure: Rondo might be small, but his mouth isn’t. And he doesn’t lack for confidence.
He hasn’t shied away from trying to hold the Celtics’ Big Three accountable whether they like it or not. His stubbornness often got him in trouble with Rivers early in his career. Last summer, Celtics president Danny Ainge questioned whether Rondo was deserving of a max contract because of his immaturity and inconsistent jumper.
[Photos: See Rajon Rando in action]
The Celtics say Rondo has matured this season. And while he hasn’t stopped talking, his play also has spoken volumes.
“He might be the most arrogant guy on our team, and nobody really knows,” Perkins said. “He has a fiery edge. That’s always been him in a good way. Really, when he gets on the court he thinks he’s the best player on the court.”
Rondo hasn’t forgotten he struggled as a rookie and shared playing time with Delonte West(notes) and Sebastian Telfair(notes) just four seasons ago. Even during the Celtics’ championship season of 2007-08, he was among the biggest question marks on the roster, tasked with guiding the Big Three of Kevin Garnett(notes), Paul Pierce(notes) and Ray Allen(notes).
While Garnett predicted Rondo would eventually develop into one of the league’s best point guards, not everyone was so confident.
“We believed in him as a starting point guard,” Pierce said, “but it was hard to fully trust him.”
Celtics coach Doc Rivers had a simple explanation for why the franchise chose Rondo over a more established point guard.
“We were out of money,” Rivers said.
“That’s probably the first thing. The second thing was, we just liked him.”
That’s a good thing, because Rondo has evolved into one of the league’s most improved players and a potential superstar. He made the All-Defense team and was a first-time All-Star this season. He also is one of the biggest reasons Boston has advanced to the Finals for the second time in three years.
“He put in the hours himself so he could prove that he could lead his team himself to a championship,” Rivers said, “and he’s doing that.”
Said Rondo: “I’m strong-willed. I’m a leader more than a follower. If I disagree with something, I’m going to say or voice my opinion. That’s just how I am. Either you like it, or you don’t.”
Rondo’s popularity has spiked with his production. His No. 9 Celtics jersey is among the top 15 hottest-selling in the league. He also is close friends with rapper and actor Common and made a cameo in the new movie “Just Wright.”
Rondo’s so-called entourage, however, is still confined to his immediate family and his high school coach Doug Bibby.
“I got people that are going to be honest with me,” Rondo said. “The only way people don’t stick around is if they are blowing smoke up your behind every time you do something great. I got people that are going to tell me when I’m doing wrong and not doing well, and so will my coaching staff.”