The ever-loyal Paul Pierce, brandishing the sometimes repugnant blabbering of Kevin Garnett and the even-keeled, knife-to-the-heart jump shooting of Ray Allen, was supposed to reverse Boston’s fortunes. The Celtics missed out on Greg Oden when the lottery pinged and ponged the wrong way in 2007, so Danny Ainge skipped a few pages in R.C. Buford’s franchise-building manual and brought the stars together. It was a palatable narrative, one of NBA veterans shedding their solo aspirations for championship glory.
We didn’t really know Rajon Rondo at the time – he was just some point guard who made some plays sometimes, and couldn’t shoot a lick. So when the Celtics captured the 2008 title, it was Pierce, Allen and Garnett, with some Doc Rivers, James Posey and Kendrick Perkins sprinkled in, that absorbed the public adulation. Rondo probably celebrated too, blissfully unaware of the ephemeral nature of the thing.
Somewhere along the way, Rondo’s current evolutionary form materialized, and no one’s really sure when it happened. It was awkward and uncomfortable as he poked and prodded the holes in Danny Ainge’s brainchild, otherwise known as the Big Three. There really wasn’t room for a “Big Four” – that one extra piece somehow detracted from the prodigious quality of this laboratory-engineered monster. But Rondo encroached anyway, racking up assists in droves by hitting Ray Allen (who was becoming more Derek Fisher than Reggie Miller) or Paul Pierce in transition, and reviving and reinventing Kevin Garnett as a jump shooter who goes inside to do lanky things on occasion.
There weren’t (and still aren’t) really any satisfactory words to capture the Rondo enigma. Everyone knew Boston needed another piece to sustain success. Even in the mainstream vocabulary, we had already subconsciously transitioned the Celtics from “veteran” to “aging.” Rondo was young and sprightly, squirming around the court with alarming speed, but his game was too imprecise, especially for the Big Three, whose roles have always been etched in stone. He just sort of meandered aimlessly on the court, in that Steve Nash-ian never-lose-your-dribble kind of way until perchance something positive emerged.
To his credit, Doc Rivers never reeled in that Rondo. Instead, he unleashed him completely. There was one play in Game 4 of their deadlocked Eastern Conference Final against Miami when Rondo, standing at the top of the key with his typically atypical 10 feet of room, jibbed and jived and faked and pivoted, never moving the ball or his feet, all while the defense rotated and recovered to nothing. Rondo finally dropped the ball off to a teammate, who nailed a three. That sort of unvarnished play, creating something out of nothing, makes him breathtaking, but also the particular piece Boston required – someone to restart the engine and turn this three-year experiment into an always loitering and surreptitious contender.
Yet Rondo managed to nestle himself comfortably within the Garnett-pioneered Celtic bravado as well; he’s abrasive and brash and downright uncaring towards opponents. And we love him for it, maybe only because it’s directed towards Miami at this moment, and it affords us interviews in which he refers to the Heat as whiny babies. But that’s also a component of his basketball perspective – unkempt, unplanned and reactionary, but pointedly honest and clever.
But here we are now, in the 2012 NBA Playoffs. The series score is 2-2, and Bostonians have no one else to thank but the high-pitched, southern drawl of the Kentucky-born Rondo. His highlights are mesmerizing, and they recall nostalgic memories of Jason Kidd and Magic Johnson, of players who could dominate without praiseworthy bucket-making. But what will we say about Boston when it’s all said and done and the team is broken up? We surely can’t call them dynastic – one title and multiple playoff failures later, we imagined this picturesque group coming together to produce championships, plural. Yet we fasten words like execution and poise to their rubric, even if that’s no longer the case (as anyone who watched Game 4 can attest to), because a part of us still clings to that dynastic hope. And we can’t call them the Big Three either, at least not since Rondo has been the best player for the past two-plus years with his unorthodox slithering. Still, it’s clear he’ll never cross that threshold into the hallowed, title-given ground, if only because saying the “Big Four” sounds clunky and may be a disservice to a previously appointed nickname.
What we’re left with, then, is an undefined player, with an indistinct title, excluded from the cool kids’ club but universally acknowledged to be the coolest of kids. If Boston does somehow snag this year’s title, maybe that conversation will change. But Rondo seems to thrive in that nebulous in-between, as if his every magnificence is an utter surprise. At the very least, the old narrative is no longer edible and has yielded to a new one, one that no one foresaw five years ago, but one that’s utterly enjoyable and hardly finished.
Is it stupid that Boston has the “Big Three” and their best player isn’t even included in that?
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