Opposing coaches have said they can get caught up watching Rajon Rondo, that his ability to weave through a defense and find teammates with precision passes thrown through small windows can, at times, be hypnotizing.
Rookie Celtics coach Brad Stevens never has coached a player of Rondo’s caliber — or really anyone in the point guard’s stratosphere. But Stevens said he hasn’t gotten caught up watching Rondo, even though it’s his first year coaching him.
“Because maybe we see it every day in practice,” Stevens said. “Or maybe I just expected it.”
When Stevens coached at Butler University, he watched the nationally televised games, when Rondo is known to play his very best. He watched Rondo’s wizardry with the ball, as he piled up assists, twice leading the league in that category.
But after Rondo tallied a season-high 18 assists with no turnovers in the Celtics’ 118-111 win Sunday night against the Detroit Pistons at TD Garden, Stevens couldn’t help but offer a high compliment to the team’s captain and floor general.
“He’s one of the best passers in small areas that I’ve ever seen,” Stevens said after his team won its second straight game, improving to 22-41.
That skill was on full display against Detroit, which features a towering frontline trio of 6-foot-9-inch Josh Smith, 6-10 Andre Drummond, and 6-11 Greg Monroe.
Rondo weaved through those tall timbers and dropped off passes between their long limbs that only his teammates could recover.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Kelly Olynyk, who had 18 points and six rebounds off the bench. “To see greatness before your eyes is something special.”
The NBA began tracking individual turnovers in 1977-78. Since then, the Celtic who has had the most assists without a turnover in a regular-season game is Rondo, who had 17 assists without a miscue in November of 2010 against the Pistons.
Rondo, who also scored 11 points, topped that record Sunday and posted the highest number of assists without a turnover in a regular-season game since then-Phoenix point guard Steve Nash had 18 assists and no turnovers in April 2007 against Utah.
But perhaps the biggest achievement for Rondo was reaching 4,101 career assists, which moved him past Bill Russell (4,100) for fifth place in Celtics history.
“Any time you pass up arguably the best Celtic of all time and your name is mentioned in the same breath as him, it’s definitely an honor and a compliment,” Rondo said. “He wasn’t a point guard, but he played here I don’t know how long. To get on the same list and to pass him up is definitely an honor.”
And as for passing the ball into those small areas? What’s the key?
“I can’t give you the key to that,” Rondo said, smiling. “I can’t give it away.”
But his teammates who haven’t played with him before this season have learned that they always have to be ready when he’s on the court.
“Sometimes as a big, you don’t know when he’s going to throw you the ball,” said Kris Humphries, who had 20 points and 11 rebounds.
“He’s breaking down the D and making passes that you may not even see coming. It’s taken a while to get used to being ready when he breaks down the defense.”
Behind Rondo, the Celtics moved the ball as well as at any point all year, tallying a season-high 38 assists, topping their high of 34 Jan. 17 against the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Pistons had just 17 assists, but they held a 54-39 rebounding edge behind Drummond, who grabbed 22, Monroe, who had 14, and Smith, who had 11.
Likewise, the Pistons held a 64-44 edge in points in the paint, but the Celtics were able to attack from long-range, sinking 10 of 31 3-pointers.
Jeff Green led the Celtics with 27 points, including 14 in the third quarter, when he hit four 3-pointers. Smith led the Pistons (24-39) with 28 points, and Monroe scored 22. Drummond had 18 points.
But it came back to Rondo, and his ball-handling. The Celtics had just seven turnovers, compared with a season-high 28 in their win Friday over Brooklyn.
“I had seven of those 28,” Rondo pointed out. “I made a conscious effort to do a better job of taking care of the ball. Me being the point and having the ball so much in your hands the entire game, it starts with you.”
His passing seemed contagious, as the final numbers showed.
“I just think it was a trickle-down effect,” Rondo said. “When one guy has it going, as far as passing the ball, it’s contagious and guys kept moving the ball. Granted, we scored a bunch of points tonight, but we kept on pushing. We played free. We just had fun.”
Many of his passes belonged on highlight reels, whether a bounce pass through traffic to a cutting Green, or jumping for a layup before throwing a mid-air pass to cutting big man on the other side of the hoop.
Stevens doesn’t believe in being overly flashy. He said he watched his young son, Brady, put the ball between his legs and then behind his back.
“I said, ‘You only do that if it helps you make a play, you only do that if it helps you make a move,’ ” Stevens said.
“But [Rondo] makes moves that way. He delivers passes that way. It’s the best angle to deliver the ball, and it gets there the quickest. It’s not really flashy. It’s just the most effective.
“All those passes are legitimate passes. That’s the part I like.”
But it’s no doubt fun for Stevens to see Rondo make those passes up close, vs. watching from afar, on television, where he saw a player whose wizardry with the ball was renowned, even hypnotizing.