During the Celtics’ playoff series with the Atlanta Hawks, we have found out that Rajon Rondo is called “Swag’’ by teammates and that Kevin Garnett thinks of him as “Voltron,’’ a television cartoon super robot. If Rondo can display the positive characteristics of either nickname, the Celtics, holding a 3-1 series edge, could conclude things in Game 5 Tuesday night in Atlanta.
Rondo did not have to possess excessive confidence or mechanical super powers in the Celtics’ 101-79 win over the Hawks Sunday night. All Rondo had to do was convert wide-open shots.
Game 4 might well have been a breeze for the Celtics even if Rondo had missed all 11 of his field goal attempts. Rondo converted eight shots, the fake behind-the-back pass drive the most memorable.
But Rondo also hit two 3-pointers and four other perimeter jumpers and the fact he drained six of his eight field goals from distance was significant.
Often, Rondo seems uncomfortable finding himself with a face-up opportunity and plenty of time on the shot clock. It has a Kryptonite effect on him. But not this time.
“The jump shot - he’s starting to trust his jump shot a little more,’’ Celtics guard Keyon Dooling said. “That’s what’s different about his game. He’s really knocking down the jump shot.’’
Rondo seemed composed in the Celtics’ home games, after being suspended in Game 2 for a Game 1 run-in with referee Marc Davis. Rondo took control offensively and also took on the responsibility of defending Jeff Teague.
“Avery [Bradley], I think, is the best defender, on-ball defender in the league,’’ Rondo said of making the switch onto Teague. “But he got into early foul trouble, so I wanted him to stay on the court and give him a little break on [Kirk] Hinrich. Teague brings the ball up and I wanted to pressure the ball.’’
Unless Rondo produces many similar outside shooting performances, he will be perceived as inconsistent. Part of the reason is Rondo often makes difficult plays seem easy and simple things look difficult - for example, his 2-for-5 performance from the free throw line in Game 5.
The rules allow a free throw shooter 10 seconds to line up a shot, and the Hawks seemed willing to allow Rondo about that much time to fire up jumpers. Like most Celtics opponents, the Hawks are comfortable allowing Rondo room to roam on the perimeter; better for him to be taking open shots than penetrating into the lane, breaking down the defense.
Opponents’ defensive schemes are not likely to change much, as long as the Celtics have Ray Allen and Paul Pierce to spread everything out with their long-range threats.
Usually, Rondo’s playmaking threat leads to scoring opportunities for him. But if Rondo continues to connect from distance, it could open up even more assist possibilities. And that might lead to some record-breaking numbers. In Game 4, Rondo scored 20 points and had 16 assists, making it 27 consecutive games with double-figure assists (24 in the regular season, three in the playoffs).
Now, the Celtics are a game away from advancing to the second round. And for the Celtics to continue this playoff run, there will be an emphasis on efficiency. The Game 4 blowout enabled most of the starters, plus Allen, to take lengthy breaks. Garnett, who played a season-high 42 minutes in the Celtics’ 90-84 overtime win Friday, went for 27:20 Sunday. Bradley and Pierce combined for less than 36 minutes.
For the Celtics to make an extended run, Rondo may not have to turn into the best shooter in the universe, but he will have to continue placing his stamp on games from the opening tipoff.
“That’s my mind-set every game,’’ Rondo said after Game 4. “We were in a good rhythm, a good flow, but it started with all five guys getting defensive stops and that allowed us to get out into the break, get into an easy rhythm, get a couple easy layups, and it triggered from there.’’