As the wheels rolled back and the team jet lifted out of Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, the season's most humiliating loss dangled like an anvil inside the Boston Celtics' charter flight. Kevin Garnett(notes) was still out, the playoffs were 10 days away and Rajon Rondo(notes) directed his teammates to gather in the back of the cabin.
"Go ahead," Doc Rivers warned his players, "but it will be an awful meeting."
Rondo appeared to want his teammates to air out complaints in the early evening of April 14, but it rapidly deteriorated into a grievance session that had the uncomfortable vibe of the young guys against the Big 3 of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce(notes) and Ray Allen(notes). For some Celtics, there was a sense that Rondo had prodded the younger teammates to speak out on the tough-love tactics of the vets.
Rondo never vented, but one teammate who had challenged K.G. later confessed privately that he wished he had never spoken up, that he didn't even believe the whiny words tumbling out of his mouth. Rondo insists he had the best of intentions, and yet there's no mistaking the fact the meeting served to widen a gulf between him and his older teammates.
As the flight touched down in Philadelphia, Allen filed past his coach and insisted, "Boy, you were right."
Rivers didn't reveal the meeting to Yahoo! Sports, but was honest about its consequences. Rondo has come a long way from April, when there were influential members of the organization – from front office to the floor – who wondered about his agenda, who thought the wildly talented point guard was sometimes too smart for the greater good of the team. In this preseason, the sturdiness and consistency of his leadership has overwhelmed any lingering skepticism in the front office, coaching staff and locker room.
"He's been phenomenal," Rivers said.
Even so, few coaches have Rivers' innate ability to understand the dynamic of the locker room, of human nature, and diffuse combustible circumstances before they devolve into disruptions. Ultimately, Rivers let the education of Rajon Rondo take its course.
"I hate player meetings," he said. "The right things are never said. I've always believed that either guys blow smoke up each other's asses, or they go the completely opposite way and say (bleep) they can't repair.
"Well, they had it and everyone got on the bus all pissed off at each other."
Allen walked past Rivers with that you-told-us-so line, and the Celtics climbed off the charter flight and onto the team bus in Philadelphia in a way that they never did: single file. The bus to the hotel was silent. No words spoken. Rivers had a young point guard trying to fill the leadership void, and assuredly suffering the repercussions of a tactical mistake.
"Here we are, going to the playoffs, and the problem was that Kevin wasn't playing and it's tough to lead when you're not playing," Rivers said. "I don't think you can. There was that, and a lot of other crap going on."
Rondo had little enthusiasm to discuss the meeting, saying, "It's hard to play when guys have things on their chest. I think it's best to get it off there. But obviously Doc thinks otherwise.
"…A lot of guys said what they had to say, but I don't know if it helped us or hurt us."
Rondo played brilliant ball in the playoffs, but Celtics general manager Danny Ainge still shopped him in summer trade talks. His intent was likely less to actually move Rondo and far more to shake him up. Rondo is smart and strong-minded, and sometimes his stubbornness could complicate cohesion.
Within the team, there was a sense the three biggest stars – Garnett, Pierce and Allen – had all made sacrifices to solidify the Celtics as a champion. As much as Rondo might want it to be considered the Big 4, the question would linger: What had he given up?
In Rondo's defense, there isn't a young player in the NBA with his burden. When it was suggested to him that his maturity would never be an issue were his teammates someone besides the accomplished Big 3, Rondo brightened and said, "That's a good point. That could be a real possibility, but I am where I am. And I've got to mature a little more."
Rondo can be a restricted free agent next summer and undoubtedly could command near a maximum contract – especially should LeBron James(notes), Dwyane Wade(notes) and Chris Bosh(notes) re-sign with their own teams. For now, the Celtics and Rondo's agent are nowhere near an extension with the Oct. 31 deadline looming.
"If we come to an agreement before the deadline, great. If we don't, I'll play it out without a problem," Rondo said.
For now, the Celtics have declared devotion to Rondo. At times, Rivers had been hard on Rondo. He's forever challenged him. The Celtics won a title with Rondo running this team two years ago, and are again a favorite with a deeper cast and K.G. returning. Through it all, Rivers has always had empathy for Rondo's burden, saying, "Unfortunately and unfairly for Rondo, we are going to win because of the Big 3, but when you lose, people will always be looking for another reason. And outside the Big 3, who's the next best player? It will always fall on him.
"At the end of the day, everything falls onto Rondo's lap. It's an unfair burden, but one that's he's got to perform under."
Now, the Celtics coach thinks back to those embittered faces slogging off the team plane and an old point guard stands firm on a personal truth: He hates those team meetings.
"But to me, in some ways, it was a good thing," Rivers said. "It got some things out there, and it allowed us to move forward over the summer.
"I think Rondo did learn. You do learn a lot of times by trial and error."
Yes, Doc Rivers could laugh now. "And it's usually error."