Boston's worst fears may very well have been realized against the Knicks.
Late in the fourth quarter at Madison Square Garden, Rajon Rondo sprained his left ankle going up for a lay-up, taking a hard roll as he extended toward the basket. Rondo was on all fours and in obvious pain for several minutes, and had to be helped off the court and into the locker room.
Although he would eventually return and play for several more minutes, it was clear that Boston's start young point guard was not himself, appearing far out of kilter and unable to effectively run the Celtics' offense. The Celtics would eventually sneak away with a 118-116 victory on the back of a Paul Pierce go-ahead bucket with 00.4 left on the clock, and an Amar'e Stoudemire three-point game-winner waved off at the buzzer, but the damage had been done.
According to Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, "Rajon, I think, will be out for a couple of weeks, anyway..." This leaves a HUGE hole in Boston's offense, which is run like only Rajon Rondo can run it. However, this is the NBA, and you need to keep going, even when you're hurting.
The task of starting point guard now falls to Nate Robinson.
After arriving in Boston from New York last February, has made a name for himself as a point guard/shooting guard hybrid, and has become the first player off the bench for Rajon Rondo. With Rondo gone for the next few weeks, Robinson will now be Boston's starting point guard.
Sure, he's now the starter, but how, exactly, will he fare in this position?
There's obviously a lot of skepticism in the Boston fanbase, some of which is justified. No one is Rajon Rondo. But, to spoof Rick Pitino, he's walking through that door. Nate has to take the ball and run the offense. But can he do it?
Yes, he can, and here's why.
When Nate came to Boston this February, he struggled to find a place on the team, fighting for minutes alongside Rondo, Ray Allen, Tony Allen, and Marquis Daniels, playing an average of 14.7 minutes per game and averaging only 6.5 points per game. Robinson had the disadvantage of coming to the Celtics mid-way through the season at a time when the depth chart was long set, and trying to find a role on the team. However, he would go on to earn valuable minutes in the playoffs, coming off the bench for Rajon Rondo as the playoffs progressed.
Now, after having played through a tough postseason this past spring and summer, gone through training camp with the Celts, and having already played 24 games for the Celtics this season (after playing only 26 in the regular season after arriving), Nate Robinson has now become an integral part of Boston's system, finally establishing himself as Rajon Rondo's solid backup from the outset of the season.
Nate has finally had enough time to learn the playbook and become comfortable with this group of guys, and is now averaging 7.7 points per game and 16.5 minutes per game. Although the increases may seem small, and his numbers may be lower due to an already deep roster, he is certainly making his presence felt, and has shown that he can play well with this team.
Nate's certainly one of the smaller players in the NBA, coming in at 5'9" and weighing 180 pounds. Rajon Rondo isn't much bigger, at 6'1" and 171 pounds. Because of their similar physical attributes, they play similar games. Both are small and agile, and can put the sneakers to the court and push the ball when needed.
Nate's become much less of a gunslinger, as he appeared at times last year. Playing under Doc Rivers' system, he has learned to play that particular style of offense, with a big focus on facilitating at point rather than running the ball down and jacking up threes on every possession (although this is always an option, as I will discuss later). He's learned how to work the ball and find the best possible pass, and has been more efficient in shot selection as well. Like Rondo, he can drive to the lane if necessary, and can get to the rim for a quick two points.
Again, like Rondo, Nate has a keen sense of what it takes to run the offense at a given time. Both point guards know when it's time to push the offense and put pressure on defenders to get quick points, and when it's time to slow the game down and work the ball down low and get high-percentage, calculated shots and focus on defense. Nate has done well alongside Rondo, and looks well-prepared to play the Rajon Way.
What??? Rajon Rondo is LACKING???? Unfortunately, yes. Rajon Rondo has never developed any sort of jumpshot, with most of his scoring coming from driving the lane and laying it up. Not only that, making free throws is not one of his favorite things to do, shooting .437 from the line this year, and .632 for his career. Nate, on the other hand, is shooting .800 from the line this year, and .792 for his career. In addition, Nate is a far better outside shooter, with his ability to hit almost any kind of shot, including a nice pull-up three-point shooter.
Obviously, he's not Rajon Rondo; Nate's good, but he's not the facilitator or floor general that Rondo is, who would rather dish it out to create scoring. However, he does bring a unique quality to his point guard play. With his ability to shoot on the outside, he can quickly swing between point and shooting guard with each passing sequence, and may bring some extra scoring to the Celtics' offense with some added versatility.
Nate's already gained some experience starting for this team, starting four games this year, including three in a row when Rondo was sidelined with a hamstring injury. Not only did he start, he made the most of it, averaging 16.5 points per game and 5.5 assists per game, showcasing his own ability to lead the offense and help the Green along to victory.
From his games as a starter as well as extra time playing with the first string, Nate has shown that he is comfortable alongside the Big Three, showing his ability to step up his game when he needs to and contribute on the same level as the big boys. Not only that, the starters have shown a willingness to include him in the offense, rather than only using him as a placeholder until Rondo can return. As I said before, he's become an ingrained part of this team, and the rest of the team knows it.
When Kevin Garnett went down with a knee injury during the 2008-2009 season, his spot needed to be filled. The Celtics were suddenly left without a major part of their post presence, with much of their scoring and rebounding suddenly gone.
It was here that Glen Davis made a name for himself.
It was during the latter part of the regular and the 2009 Playoffs that Big Baby proved he deserved a spot on the Celtics, rising to the challenge of filling the void left by KG's injury. The Celtics finished the regular season with a record of 62-20, thanks in large part to Davis, and stayed alive for seven games against the Orlando Magic, again thanks to the work of Davis, especially his buzzer-beater in Game Four to seal a 95-94 Boston victory.
Why do I bring this up?
Nate Robinson faces the similar challenge of filling a major hole, and has a raise the level of his game to that at which Rondo has been playing. He also faces the similar prospect of securing his place on this team, and forming a reputation as a player who's ready to fire on all cylinders and do whatever it takes. Despite being opposites in terms of positions, both of these guys are scrappy players who have the raw talent to play on high-quality teams, but haven't gotten the shot. Now that Glen Davis has his spot, it's time for Nate to earn his.
This one of the most important qualities a point guard can have. They're essentially the quarterback of basketball, who has to not only lead the team just in terms of the playbook, but as a leader of men (no matter how cliché that sounds). Rajon Rondo has quickly matured into that sort of leader, with the ability to rally his team and make others better at what they do.
Nate Robinson clearly has that ability. Along with Glen Davis, Nate has emerged as a leader of the bench, bringing a toughness and intensity required of a point guard. Again, much like Rondo, Nate leads my example and makes his teammates bring their best onto the floor, responding to his call for action. Who could ever forget the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals, when Rajon Rondo came out of the game and Nate came in, and proceeded to sink bucket after bucket en route to a Celtics victory over the Magic? It was here that Nate got loud, fired up the team, and helped the lead the Celtics past Orlando.
It's obvious that Nate Robinson has the ability to run this offense and be a part of this team, and he knows how to score and facilitate. He has the intensity factor, staying cool under pressure and never losing focus. Most importantly, he knows how lead, and can put the team on his back when he has to in order to win.
Ultimately, only time will tell how well Nate will do filling in for Rajon Rondo, and no matter how well he does as a sub, fans will want Rondo healthy as soon as possible. In the end, no one is as good as Rajon Rondo, and until he returns, this team simply isn't as good.
Let's just hope we can come somewhat close.