WALTHAM — He didn’t say he was sorry. He didn’t say he was wrong. He didn’t say he wouldn’t do it again. Rajon Rondo doesn’t back down, and he doesn’t back off. That’s what makes the Celtics point guard one of the game’s toughest players to define and decode.
If stubborn had a Hall of Fame, Rondo would be a shoo-in.
We’re past the point where we can call Rondo’s two-game stint in David Stern’s hoops holding cell for coming to the defense of Kevin Garnett and tangling with Brooklyn Nets forward Kris Humphries a learning experience. If so, Rondo needs Adderall, considering it’s his third league-imposed suspension in almost 10 months.
It’s easy to think of Rondo as the Celtics’ rambunctious kid brother, a youngster testing the limits of his talent and his boundaries in NBA existence. But he’s now a seven-year veteran and an established All-Star. He’ll be 27 in February. His intentions were admirable after Humphries dished out a devious foul on an off-balance KG late in the first half of the Celtics’ 95-83 loss to Brooklyn Wednesday, but his execution wasn’t.
The Celtics have anointed Rondo as their fearless leader in hopes that greater responsibility leads to a more responsible player. But this is just who he is — a mesmerizing, complicated package of playing ability and willful personality. He can add a jump shot, but he can’t add an emotional filter to separate right from wrath. He’s not going to change, and the Celtics shouldn’t expect him to.
“This game is a contact sport, it’s an emotional game. I play with an edge every night,” said Rondo. “I think that’s what separates me from a lot of guys. I’m not going to let that take away from my game.
“I didn’t do anything dirty. This is a new day and era of the kind of style we play the game. Back in the day, the ball would have been checked up, some free throws made, and we would have kept going. But it’s a new era, and we’ve got different rules now.”
It was the essence of Rondo that he lost his 37-game assist streak because he was ejected, not because anyone could stop him.
He is a player who defies comparison and the NBA’s caste system. He’ll feud with Chris Paul. He’ll go chest-to-chest with Dwyane Wade. He’ll absorb Kobe Bryant’s glare and stare right back. He doesn’t play with a chip on his shoulder. He plays as though Plymouth Rock is resting on his right shoulder.
That same stubbornness is also what makes Rondo tough to rely on as a leader, a role bestowed upon him by Celtics coach Doc Rivers and president of basketball operations Danny Ainge. But leaders are forged, not forced.
Rondo is the car that’s fun to drive but that you know at least once during the winter isn’t going to start and is going to leave you stranded.
As Rondo said, he plays the game with an edge. It’s just that sometimes he goes over it.
No. 9 has made strides. He handled the Paul trade rumors last year with class and equanimity. But Rondo is often at his best in a media scrum, when his superior intellect is on display. He can riposte a reporter’s question with the best of them.
If Rondo had been as cool, calm, and detached Wednesday night, when he ended up tussling with the former Mr. Kim Kardashian in the TD Garden courtside seats, as he was Thursday at HealthPoint, then he wouldn’t be suspended for the next two games.
Humphries’s made-for-TV marital bliss lasted longer than any expression of wrongdoing from Rondo.
The closest Rondo, who spoke before his suspension was announced, came to penitence was admitting that his teammates pay the price when he’s not able to take the court.
“I know I have to be out there for my teammates, that’s the only thing about it,” said Rondo. “But I was sticking up for my teammates. I’m not trying to start a fight. I’m not trying to be a bully.”
The question is, would he have had the same overprotective-parent reaction if the Celtics had been up 16 instead of down 16 at the time of Humphries’s foul?
Rondo said frustration had nothing to do with his reaction, calling Humphries’s foul “a malicious play.”
But he does have a reputation for petulance.
He went into a funk after the Celtics traded Kendrick Perkins two years ago. He threw the ball at referee Sean Wright in Detroit last February after not getting a foul call on a drive, earning a two-game suspension. He bumped official Marc Davis in the playoffs, after Davis made a dubious foul call on the Celtics with 41 seconds left in a loss to the Atlanta Hawks. That led to a one-game suspension.
Earlier this season, Rondo was accused of a questionable foul of his own after he collared Wade late in the Celtics’ season-opening loss to the Miami Heat.
“I don’t know,” said Rivers. “You can always be frustrated. So, that can be part of it. It’s probably everything. You never know what a reaction brings. It could be the guy — you might not like the guy who did it to Kevin. You’re getting your butt kicked, it’s Kris Humphries, Rondo wasn’t playing great, it was Kevin of all the guys who went to the floor.
“It could have been all of those in one, the perfect storm.”
“Storm” is the perfect word for Rondo because he is a force of nature that can’t be controlled. That makes him a great point guard. It makes for a questionable leader.
It’s hard to be a leader if you’re unapologetically following your impulses.