The genius of Rajon Rondo's talent comes with the combustibility. If the Boston Celtics needed to respond to Brooklyn's Kris Humphries crashing Kevin Garnett onto the floor, someone else needed to do it. Superstars step aside and let role players retaliate. They don't get thrown out and suspended.
So why did Rondo do it?
"Loyalty," a close friend of his said Wednesday night.
For the most important player in the franchise, that loyalty was mostly misplaced because toppling Humphries into the courtside seats cost Rondo an ejection, a two-game suspension and the end of a consecutive-game assists streak that meant a great deal to him. Rondo has history of imploding, and it won't serve him well in the league office's sentencing. Mostly, it'll cost the Celtics. They're struggling and losing Rondo compounds issues for them.
"Fighting isn't toughness," Celtics coach Doc Rivers declared.
Before the league handed down its suspension, Rivers had to be careful how harshly he publicly judges his point guard. He doesn't want to make the league case for a significant suspension easier.
Rondo has a history. For bumping an official in the first round of last season's Eastern Conference playoffs, Rondo could've cost the Celtics their series with the Atlanta Hawks. Without him, they won Game 2 and survived. However loathsome Humphries seems to his peers – and posting photos of scratch marks on his shoulder late Wednesday further validated why his foul was met with such an excessive response – Rondo let down the locker room, let down his coach.
This isn't the old NBA, where the scuffle would've gone unpunished. These are different times, different days. Rondo's reaction was natural, but with an 8-7 record, with a chance to break the record for consecutive 10-assist games, there's no benefit to rushing to Garnett's assistance. There would've been a way to retaliate on Humphries during the game – a hard foul, an elbow, whatever – but a superstar rushing up and wrestling him into the front row was a complete waste of time. Perhaps Rondo needs to look around the locker room and ask: Where was someone else to do that job for me?
Rivers has always let Rondo play through his mistakes, learn and become better for it. Within the organization, the Celtics have always marveled over Rivers' ability to let Rondo have latitude to his eccentric self, to push the limits of his creativity, his risk-taking. Rivers lets Rondo do it all, but as one assistant coach told me, "Doc's always known when he needs to pull him back in."
This was one of those times on Wednesday night, because Rivers hadn't come to publicly celebrate the tired, old cliché of players having their teammates' backs. Wisely, Rivers used the postgame podium to insist those are things done with defense and rebounding and true, inspired physical play within the game. "We're a soft team," Rivers lamented, and that mostly meant a mentally soft team that gave in far too easily to Brooklyn.
Yes, Rondo cares deeply about his partnership with Garnett and believes there's a code that comes with honoring him. No one feels sorry for Garnett getting a hard foul – he's delivered his share, legitimate and not-so-legitimate, through the years. The bigger issue was the way that the Nets were taking the fight to the Celtics – the way that Brooklyn's come after Boston in two victories this season – and that's what Rondo and Garnett and these Celtics truly need to combat now.
So Rondo goes to the bench with a suspension, his combustible self costing the Celtics in a way that was completely unnecessary. There was no honor to defend on Wednesday night in Boston, no valor in rushing to Garnett's side.
Someone else should've taken the suspension for Boston, but more importantly, the Celtics should've matched the way Brooklyn so desperately wanted to beat them. That's the bigger issue, and that's the test for the Celtics point guard when his suspension ends next week.
These aren't the old days of the NBA, and this wasn't leadership out of Rajon Rondo. Against all his combustibility, against all his judgment, he knows better – and still it happened to him. Again. This is the blessing and curse of his greatness, maybe now and forever.
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