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Rajon Rondo's 4th-Quarter Failures Burdening Boston Celtics

Brian Robb@CelticsHubFeatured ColumnistDecember 12, 2014

Boston Celtics guard Rajon Rondo (9) looks on during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Washington Wizards, Monday, Dec. 8, 2014, in Washington. The Wizards won 133-132 in double overtime. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Nick Wass/Associated Press

BOSTON — NBA franchise players rarely sit out the fourth quarter unless a contest has been decided. So when Boston Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo didn't play for the final 27 minutes of Monday night's 133-132 double-overtime loss to the Washington Wizards, it turned heads in the region.

Rondo's benching was not a big deal on the surface. Head coach Brad Stevens kept four starters glued to the sidelines for the majority of the game's closing moments. His second unit helped erase a 23-point deficit to force overtime.

After the game, Stevens attributed the decision to simply riding the bench’s hot hand. So no big deal, right? Not quite.

There may have been another reason why Stevens wasn't comfortable turning back to Rondo down the stretch. The 28-year-old has struggled mightily when his team needs him most in the fourth quarter.

The numbers are ugly.

Through 20 games, all facets of Rondo’s fourth-quarter performances have been underwhelming, especially coming from a four-time All-Star who wants a max contract this offseason. Here’s a breakdown of his fourth-quarter stats, with team ranking in parentheses:

  • 143 minutes (third)
  • 7.9 minutes per game (first)
  • 1.6 points per game (11th)
  • 27.9 percent shooting (worst)
  • 20 percent from three-point range (second-worst)
  • 22.2 percent at free-throw line (worst of rotation players)
  • 19 turnovers (most on team)
  • Minus 47 in plus/minus (ninth)

Rondo’s fourth-quarter struggles are uncharacteristic of his career. He's shot above 40 percent from the field in the fourth quarter during all prior seasons.

Unsurprisingly, this year's drop-off has been a serious detriment to Boston’s chances of closing out games and a critical factor in its 7-13 start.

Steven Senne/Associated Press

The Celtics are last in the NBA in average fourth-quarter margin. Opponents have outscored Boston by a whopping 4.1 points per game over the final 12 minutes of each contest. Those statistics should come as no surprise to Celtics fans who have seen their team blow three double-digit fourth quarter leads this season.

Rondo’s fourth-quarter woes throughout Boston’s lackluster start were particularly evident in Wednesday’s loss against the Charlotte HornetsThe Celtics trailed 87-85 with 4:31 remaining in the contest but failed to score again until hitting a meaningless layup with 15 seconds remaining. The Hornets closed with a 9-2 run, as the Celtics faltered in the half court, going just 1 of 5 from the field with four turnovers. Rondo committed three of them.

Fourth-quarter woes aside, Rondo’s all-around play has been solid during his contract year. He leads the NBA in both assists per game with 10.8 and triple-doubles with three.

But even Rondo realizes there's a problem. 

"I’ve been playing here for nine years,” Rondo explained at Thursday’s practice. “I’m one of the best at what I do, and I’m human. I make mistakes. I own up to my mistakes, and that’s just part of the game."

Rondo brushed off the notion that the criticism may be taking a toll on him in the midst of a crucial season.

"It doesn’t matter to me,” Rondo said of those who question his performance. “I’ve been here longest, I’m the team captain, and I’m the point guard, so, just like in football, in the beginning they blamed [quarterback Tom] Brady a lot [when the New England Patriots offense struggled]. It’s part of it. It’s not weighing on me at all." 

Stevens appreciates the fact that Rondo is willing to take the responsibility for the team’s fourth-quarter struggles, even though he doesn’t believe his point guard is deserving of all the blame.

John Bazemore/Associated Press

"I think he has an idea that, as a leader, and an older guy that you have to be accountable," said Stevens. "And, at the same time, if he says, ‘Hey, this one’s on me,’ or he says something to that extent, none of us think that. We all were accountable for all the different things that went wrong in a loss or in a win. I think, as a teammate, and as a person on the team, you appreciate that accountability but you certainly don’t think that that’s the case. But it’s part of being a leader." 

So if Rondo doesn’t deserve all the blame for the team’s ineffective fourth-quarter play, who does on this Celtics roster? The truth is it’s hard to finger any other single player, mainly due to the fact that the team’s lineups have varied so much throughout the year. With such a balanced roster, Stevens has been mixing and matching players late in games in hopes of finding an effective combination. The experimentation is needed, but it has also caused plenty of growing pains.

Winslow Townson/Associated Press

“I think you have to practice,” Rondo said when reflecting on the team’s late-game woes. “We can’t have chemistry or you can’t get in a rhythm with guys that [it is] your first time playing with. We just threw Tyler Zeller in the starting lineup. In the fourth quarter, it’s different lineups in the game. We have Kelly Olynyk starting sometimes. We’ve got Brandon Bass sometimes. So it’s getting a rhythm, getting a chemistry, and knowing what players you want to go to in the fourth quarter.”

The lack of a go-to player has certainly hurt the team late in games. With no reliable offensive option to turn to, Rondo has put more on himself late in games offensively, and his numbers have suffered accordingly.

The point guard still has to do better if the Celtics hope to reverse their late-game issues. Rondo doesn’t have to lead his team to victory in every crunch-time situation, but he must be a competent contributor on the offensive end for Boston to have a chance against most opponents in those spots.

Rondo has shown he can handle the criticism. Now it’s time to see if he can put a stop to it.

  

All statistics from NBA.com/stats unless otherwise noted. 

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