Dunk History: Rajon Rondo leaps past Dwight Howard, ascends to All-Star status

Dunk History: Rajon Rondo leaps past Dwight Howard, ascends to All-Star status

As the summer wears on, with training camps and preseason play still off in (what feels like) the distant future, we turn our attention to the past. Join us as we while away a few late-summer moments recalling some of the most scintillating slams of yesteryear, the most thunderous throwdowns ever to sear themselves into our memories. This is Dunk History.

Today, Paul Palladino looks back at Rajon Rondo's knifing one-handed slam against the Orlando Magic in Game 2 of the 2009 Eastern Conference semifinals.

From Kobe to LeBron to Carmelo, some names seem destined for greatness. Rajon Rondo certainly feels like one of them; between the alliteration and internal rhyming, it's truly poetic. Add in the obvious connection to John "Hondo" Havlicek, and you have a name tailor-made for the spotlight in Boston.

During his first three years in the NBA, Rondo was best known for his passing and defense. After battling for playing time with Sebastian Telfair as a rookie, Rondo claimed the starting spot in his second season, when Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joined Paul Pierce to transform the Boston Celtics into title favorites. He hinted at a flair for the dramatic with moves like his signature behind-the-back pass fake and his 2008 dunk on Jason Maxiell of the Detroit Pistons. In a supporting role to the Big Three, however, Rondo split time with veteran Sam Cassell during the team’s run to the 2008 NBA title. In the postseason, his playing time fluctuated depending on matchups and who had the hot hand.

With Garnett out of the lineup for the 2009 playoffs due to a right knee injury, Rondo took center stage as the Celtics tried to defend their title. In a seven-game victory over the Chicago Bulls in the first round, Rondo averaged 19.4 points, 11.6 assists and 9.3 rebounds in 45.3 minutes per game. After the Celtics dropped Game 1 of the conference semifinals against the Orlando Magic, Rondo responded with a 15-point, 18-assist, 11-rebound triple-double to even the series.

The highlight of the 112-94 blowout victory came when Rondo received a pass at the top of the key, took one dribble in the paint and took flight with Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard in sight. Marv Albert’s call quickly goes from a run-of-the-mill play to the frenzy that ensues when a 6-foot-1 point guard dunks on the league’s best defender and most imposing figure:

At first glance, the dunk might not seem all that impressive, but the details add up. At his peak, Rondo has the ball at the top of the square on the backboard:

Rajon Rondo went up to the top floor for this dunk.
Rajon Rondo went up to the top floor for this dunk.

Also, notice the forearm Howard throws at Rondo that sends him spinning on his descent:

Rondo bounces off, springs up and puffs out his chest to bask in the cheers of the uproarious Celtics fans.

My memories of the early Rondo years are marked by a high school friend, Ian. Despite not playing much basketball, Ian picked up on Rondo’s off-beat game during his rookie season. Every time Rondo made a highlight play, I would hear about it early and often the next day outside of my locker at school. I’d play along, but internally I doubted Rondo would ever develop into more than a supporting piece. Happily, I was mistaken.

Despite going on to take a 3-2 lead over Orlando, with emotional leader Garnett limited to trash-talking on the sidelines, Boston’s title defense fell short. In the playoffs, Rondo averaged 16.9 points, 9.8 assists, 9.7 rebounds and 2.5 steals per game. With Rondo’s emergence as the team’s fourth All-Star-level player, the Celtics continued chasing championships for a few more seasons.

The slam on Maxiell may have been the better dunk, but putting Howard on a poster on national television trumped it in terms of impact. In a league filled with great athletes, Rondo began his career as a truly elite specimen. His oversized hands and long arms helped him bottle up opposing point guards. He had the leaping ability to finish at the rim. He was also confident enough to switch onto the opposing team’s best scorer, even if that player was eight inches taller, 80 pounds heavier and named LeBron James.

Rajon Rondo, in the process of leaping Superman in a single bound. (AP/Winslow Townson)
Rajon Rondo, in the process of leaping Superman in a single bound. (AP/Winslow Townson)

Despite his litany of gifts, Rondo’s time in Boston wasn’t all smooth sailing. His lack of a consistent jump shot contributed to the Celtics being a middling offensive team even though they had three surefire Hall of Famers.

The same confidence that gave Rondo the gall to challenge Howard at the rim also resulted in plenty of drama for the Celtics. A rumored rift with Ray Allen reportedly contributed to the all-time 3-point king leaving to join the Miami Heat in 2012. He also butted heads with Doc Rivers, infamously throwing a water bottle and breaking a television during a heated film session in 2011. After losing in the first round of the 2013 playoffs, Rivers ultimately decided to skip town to coach a different All-Star point guard, Chris Paul, with the Los Angeles Clippers.

A torn ACL in 2013 has seemingly derailed Rondo’s career. Lacking the same burst on offense, he has been a shadow of himself, bottoming out with an embarrassing showing in the playoffs earlier this season with the Dallas Mavericks. His sharp decline saw him go from a candidate for a $100 million contract to signing a one-year, $10 million deal with the ever-dysfunctional Sacramento Kings.

Rondo’s career has reached a crossroads. He's entering his 10th season, and he’s unlikely to ever again match the triple-double performances he authored with the Celtics. As easy as it is to count him out, though, Rondo has long been one of the most intelligent players in the league and he surely knows the value of this season, both for his legacy and his bank account. Ever the headstrong player, he’ll be hell-bent on proving his critics wrong this year.

If Rondo never rebounds, he will still have a place in Celtics lore for his one-of-a-kind playing style, toughness and role on the 2008 title team. From shocked announcers to my apparently psychic friend Ian, cries of “RONDO!” were a staple of the Celtics' latest Big Three era. His dunk on Howard captured the bold attitude and confidence that endeared him to the fans in Boston. Rondo’s play lived up to the greatness that his name demanded, and this dunk was one of countless exclamation points along the way.

Paul Palladino is a mobile alerts/social editor for Yahoo Sports, and the author of "No Boys Allowed: The Definitive Case Against the NBA Age Limit."

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