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Bob Ryan

The Rajon Rondo conundrum

Rajon Rondo was lost for the season to a knee injury.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Rajon Rondo was lost for the season to a knee injury.

It’s been more than a month now, and we’ve all seen what we’ve seen. So . . . are the Celtics a better team without Rajon Rondo, or aren’t they?

It’s a tricky question that neither Doc Rivers nor Danny Ainge could possibly take a shot at answering in public. To acknowledge that something good is going on that can be directly traceable to the deletion of a player who was supposed to be the cornerstone of the enterprise for several years would create a dialogue no one in the organization could tolerate.

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Doc and Danny are in a no-win situation. Rondo’s ego must be protected, even if the credibility of the coach and the president of basketball operations is compromised.

Some say the answer won’t come until the playoffs, the theory being that the postseason is when a team needs the raw talent that only the Chosen Few possess. Look around, people say. Who else can give you the routine major league triple-doubles Rajon Rondo has made his signature in April, May, and June?

Truth be told, Paul Pierce can, especially in the absence of You Know Who. Putting the ball in The Captain’s hands is not a bad way to go.

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But the idea that Rondo will prove to be indispensable when the money games come is an article of faith for some. We may not miss him now, they say, but just you wait. He will have the last laugh.

OK, OK. We’ll see about all that, but in the here and now, the fact is that the Celtics have experienced a significant upgrade in the overall quality of their play since Rondo went out on that fateful Sunday afternoon. They are by no means an elite team, or a legitimate championship contender, but they can beat you — no matter who you are, even in your own building — if you’re not careful. And they are a far more pleasurable team to watch now than they were five weeks ago.

Fine.

Why?

Other people are playing better. Let’s start with that. Pierce and Kevin Garnett became more regular facsimiles of their eventual Hall of Fame selves, demonstrating the full range of their vast skills. Courtney Lee awoke from the Sleeping Beauty slumber he’d been in from Day One. Jeff Green began having more good games than MIA games. Jason Terry started to look more like the Dallas Terry (on occasion, anyway) he was brought here to be.

Which brings us to Avery Bradley.

I have to be careful not to go too ga-ga over this young man, and there is probably some hallowed metric out there suggesting he should be exiled to the Chinese League, but I have almost arrived at the conclusion that he is an absolutely irreplaceable Boston Celtic. There seems to be some kind of an issue as to whether or not he should be signed to a long-term contract so as to prevent him from becoming a restricted free agent.

Huh? How can they not?

Let me put it this way. If you had on your roster a player with the capacity to become the Darrelle Revis of basketball, would you even think about letting him go? I would hope not.

With Rondo out of the way, Revis has been unleashed. Rondo is a man of many basketball attributes, but applying defensive pressure to a point guard is not one of them. Any rival point guard whose desire it was to sashay to the rim could do so at will if he were being guarded by Rondo. With Bradley on the case, the Celtics might as well have hung up a sign saying, “Fuhgedda­boutit.”

On a team lacking a major shot-blocking deterrent, curbing dribble penetration is extremely important. Bradley’s presence addresses a major problem.

Offensively, Bradley is a pleasant work in progress. He showed last year that he knows how to play off Rondo when teamed with him. Now, in Rondo’s absence, we see that Bradley has a much broader repertoire than we realized, that he is not only good in transition and as a baseline cutter in the halfcourt, but that he can also get his own shot and make it. You can’t ignore him.

Please don’t interpret praise for Bradley as Rondo-bashing. I was one of the many on record as loving to watch Rondo play. I said and wrote repeatedly that I had never seen anyone play the position in quite the same manner or with Rondo’s particular flair.

His behind-the-back punk-job fake pass (first executed in these here parts by K.C. Jones many years ago) is on the short list of anyone’s favorite moves. Not since Fat Lever (6-1, no matter what any book may say) has there been such a proficient undersized rebounder.

Rondo in full flower is an extraordinary visual treat.

But . . .

But now we can step back and see the problem. We all got used to the Rondo Show, and that includes management, the coaching staff, and, most importantly, the players. Everyone became so mesmerized by his spectacular virtuosity that people gradually began to overlook his faults.

And I’m not just talking about the spotty outside shot, the subpar foul shooting, the inability to stop dribble penetration, or even the moodiness.

I’m talking about the fact that his monopoly of the basketball harmed the team. He had become that rare but very obvious phenomenon: the selfish assist guy.

A player can wrap up his identity in “assisting” to the degree that it can become counterproductive. He passes up shots he should take in the hopes of getting an assist. He will not make the proverbial pass-before-the-pass that would lead to someone else getting the assist. He pounds the ball for 20 or more seconds on the 24-second clock before perhaps taking it to the hoop in the hopes of an 11th-hour drive-and-dish assist, perhaps in a hopeless situation.

Say hello to Rajon Rondo.

With him gone, the team shares the ball more, other players tap deeper into their skills, and the defense is just flat-out better. At least, that’s what we’ve seen so far.

The important question is this: What is Rajon Rondo seeing? Is he taking notes and preparing himself to make some major adjustments in his game when he returns? Or is he blind to all of this?

Does he look in the mirror and see the man who was going to start the All-Star Game doing it His Way? Does he figure that when he returns, it’s everyone else that will have to change, not him?

I’m afraid I know the answer. What do you think?

Bob Ryan's column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.
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