The Boston Celtics traveled to New York yesterday to take on the revamped New York Knicks in a rematch of their Eastern Conference first-round postseason series, with the Knicks looking to avenge the embarrassing sweep they suffered at the hands of the veteran Boston club.
They managed to do just that, eking out a 106-104 victory thanks largely to the fourth-quarter heroics of Carmelo Anthony.
However, the biggest revelation of the afternoon was the phenomenal play of Rajon Rondo.
Rondo was one point away from a career high with his 31 points, he also dished 13 assists, snatched five steals and ripped down five rebounds. The fact that Rondo was leaned upon more for scoring was not surprising with the absence of Paul Pierce, but it was the manner in which he was scoring that was impressive.
Boston fans are used to seeing Rondo knife his way into the lane and get to the basket for an easy layup or pass the ball either to Kevin Garnett for a finish in the paint or to Pierce and Ray Allen for an open perimeter look.
The key difference in this game was that Rondo's shooting—easily the biggest question mark in the point guard's versatile game—was incredibly sound. He splashed several open jump shots he would have turned away or missed in years past.
He also shot 75 percent from the free-throw line, an aspect of his game that must improve given his aggressive style of play and propensity to attack the basket. If Rondo can hit his free throws this well for the season, teams will no longer be able to foul him and expect him to go one-for-two at the free-throw stripe.
Rondo showed great chemistry with the newly acquired power forward Brandon Bass, including one stellar behind-the-back pass in the paint that led to an easy dunk. With the newly revamped bench of the Celtics, it is imperative that Rondo can find chemistry early on with them in this shortened season.
Now I know this is only one game, and I may be getting ahead of myself because he carved up a Knicks backcourt consisting of Toney Douglas, Iman Shumpert and Landry Fields, but I believe this could potentially be an MVP season for the point guard out Kentucky in his fifth year in the NBA.
With the aging Big Three, Rondo has a chance to become the truly dominant player on this team and be the guy that makes or breaks their season.
If the team can lean on Rondo more and even play him with the second unit the way Doc Rivers did often with Ray Allen last year in order to preserve the legs of the veterans, they could go surprisingly deep into the postseason.
The defensive sensibilities have always been there, and thanks to his absurd wingspan and athleticism, Rondo could well become the best defensive point guard in the league. He wasn't at his best Sunday, allowing Toney Douglas to drop 19 in this first game, but one would hope that rust on the defensive end is something that will simply fade as the season continues.
He has always found a way to be aggressive on the defense without gambling too often and being reckless, and as KG gets older, Rondo will be taking a more vocal role in leading the defense than in prior years.
If Rondo can post something like 18.5 points, 12 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game, while grabbing two steals and making good decisions with the basketball, he could be a serious contender for MVP honors alongside Chris Paul, Kevin Durant and LeBron James. Obviously there are a lot of things that have to go right for this to happen: the shooting has to stay consistent, he has to continue to get everyone on the court involved and the defense has to stay top notch.
In addition, the MVP award has become about story lines, and Rondo's is a good one, like going from being a point guard no Boston fan thought their team could win a championship with to being the unquestioned anchor on an elite team in the Eastern Conference. Watching Rondo lead this veteran ballclub to a top-two or three seed should certainly be enough to grab the voters' attention.
While it has only been one game, I'm sure even the Celtics fans yearning to see Chris Paul in green are pleased with what they saw out of Rajon Rondo yesterday. If he can keep it up through April, there's no reason another MVP trophy can't come to Boston.