That night, he tore them apart, havoc from the start, three steals in the first 4½ minutes. The Los Angeles Lakers couldn’t even function. Rewatch Game 6. Really. Rewatch what Rajon Rondo did.
“Best player in the world that night,” said Danny Ainge, the Celtics’ president of basketball operations.
The world. On the same court with Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett — and Kobe Bryant. Yes, when glory returned to the parquet in June 2008, Rondo, a second-year point guard, ruled.
Five years later, Celtics coach Doc Rivers left to join the Los Angeles Clippers, Pierce and Garnett were traded to Brooklyn, and, suddenly, Rondo was the last man standing, the only Celtic left who helped raise banner 17.
“Having Ray, Paul, and Kevin around, whether he liked them all the time or not, he saw three veterans that are all pros,” said Rivers. “And I think he knows what a pro should be. He knows what a pro looks like and he knows how a leader acts.
“He has had probably the best examples that a young player could possibly have, and now he has to do it.”
Rivers said he often reminded Rondo of the line, “Leadership is not a sometimes thing, it’s an all-the-time thing,” which is a play on a quote from Vince Lombardi.
“So, when you’re emotional, you’ve got to be careful when you’re the leader,” Rivers has told Rondo. “You can’t take it over that line where you are no longer being a leader, because you’re too emotional to think.”
The Celtics’ floor general and newly crowned captain is a mix of intensity and electricity, artistry and fire. “Poetry and chaos,” said Celtics assistant Ron Adams.
And he can also get in his own way.
“As a rookie, he should’ve been playing right out of the gates, but he was so indifferent to everybody on the team that I just wouldn’t play him,” Rivers said.
But, Rivers said, “I think that helped him, that he had to earn it and show it.”
“That’s fair,” Rondo said. “I always thought Doc was hard on rookies, but he helped me become the player that I am today. I have to give him a lot of credit.
“I was able to mature very fast, being put in the situation that I was put in. It’s helped my game develop probably further along than had I been playing for another coach.”
But now, Rondo is in a situation that Rivers wanted to avoid so much that he decided not to return as the Celtics coach and, instead, join the Clippers: rebuilding.
“It’s a lot harder than anyone thinks,” Rivers said.
It’s especially hard on the lone star of a rebuilding team, Rivers added, and as an example, he shared an anecdote from his time in Orlando.
“We were going through a rebuild with Tracy [McGrady], and all the pressure is on him,” Rivers said. “We’re not winning even though I know we’re bad, but everyone says, ‘Wait a minute. You have an All-Star on your team.’ ”
Rivers said outsiders look at that lone All-Star — and McGrady led the NBA in scoring (32.1 points per game) under Rivers in 2002-03 — and wonder why they can’t win.
“What they all learn is that there’s no one who’s going to lead a team by himself without the right horses around him,” Rivers said. “That will be a process with Rondo that he’ll have to go through.”
Pierce, who toiled on rebuilding Celtics teams until Garnett and Allen arrived, said the key is patience.
“At times things don’t always go your way, and you want everything to be better right away,” Pierce said. “But you understand it’s a process. Danny Ainge understands it’s a process. They have to be on the same page. Your lead player, your franchise player, the organization — there’s constant communication on what they want from each other, and you go from there. And you build with each other.”
But will the notoriously impatient Rondo have the patience for a rebuild?
“That’s where I have my only concern with Rondo,” Rivers said. “He’s extremely competitive, so that’s hard.”
Rivers’s story about Orlando, McGrady, and the underestimated difficulty of rebuilding — especially for a star player — was shared with Rondo.
“He’s right on the money,” Rondo said. “It’s difficult. It’s a frustrating process.”
Pierce agreed: “I try to forget those days, because those are your trying days, man.”
Bryant was once the last man standing from a disassembled Lakers’ title team. “It’s frustrating,” Bryant said in January. “But from what I understand [Rondo] is an [expletive] like me, so he’ll manage.”
He’ll have to manage as the only soul in the spotlight, with every step amplified.
A firestorm ensued in late February when Rondo chose to stay in Los Angeles to celebrate his 28th birthday with friends and family rather than travel with the team to Sacramento to attend a game in which he wasn’t scheduled to play.
Rondo’s commitment was doubted, his leadership questioned.
“I think he’s completely bought in,” Ainge said. “I think it has nothing to do with his ability to lead.”
In years past, it might not have been an issue at all.
“I don’t think anyone would have cared or would have noticed,” Ainge said.
When Garnett missed games, he was rarely, if ever, on the bench. Rivers traveled to many of his sons’ college basketball games (Jeremiah played at Georgetown, Austin at Duke), which meant he often missed events he wasn’t required to attend.
Rondo grew up in that culture, where it was occasionally OK not to be with the team if you didn’t absolutely have to be. But while Rondo’s reality has changed, he hasn’t, as his response showed.
“How easy would it have been for Rajon to just say, ‘Yeah, I should’ve been in Sacramento with the team, that was a bad move by me,’ ” Ainge said. “How easy would that have been for him, and then it’s over with.
“But that’s just not who he is. He won’t say it if he doesn’t believe it. He also won’t say it if he’s just trying to appease the people asking him the question.”
Instead, Rondo told those people that what he did was none of their business, and the story lived on, overshadowing positives such as receiving the Community Assist Award for December from the NBA, in recognition of his charitable efforts and his history of generosity in the community.
“That’s what’s sort of different about him and unique about him,” Ainge said, “the stubbornness.”
“I love the kid,” Ainge added. “I love his personality. I embrace his uniqueness. I’ve sat and watched practice and I’ve seen and witnessed things that he’s being told that he’s not buying into. He’s not buying it, with all coaches — the assistant coaches, usually.
“He has a very keen mind and he’s a stubborn kid. But I find it refreshing. I like a lot of things about him. I wouldn’t handle things the way he handles them publicly. I wouldn’t handle things the way he handles them privately. At the same time, all of my conversations with him are open and honest.”
Ainge added, “All of the talk of Rajon and all of the outside stuff — nobody ever talks about when he’s playing Rondo-like basketball, when he’s playing up to his capabilities.”
Amid the recent backlash, former Celtics guard Keyon Dooling came to the defense of his close friend.
“Every time an athlete doesn’t let people in, or doesn’t like attention, people automatically put him in a box as whatever they perceive him as,” Dooling said. “And he doesn’t deserve to be in the box that he’s in.”
Dooling added, “I don’t think people will ever really understand what they don’t know, and that’s cool with him. He doesn’t really want that. He just wants to be respected as a ballplayer.”
Thinking man’s player
An IQ test? No, Rondo said he hasn’t taken one. But he has been asked that before — multiple times, in fact, which says a lot.
After all, coaches and teammates have long said that Rondo is not only one of the smartest players they’ve ever seen, but one of the smartest people they’ve ever met.
“I’ve had some players where I’ve said, ‘Man, if that guy doesn’t make it, I don’t know what he’s going to do,’ ” said Steve Smith, who coached Rondo in prep school, at basketball powerhouse Oak Hill Academy in Virginia. “But that’s not the case with Rajon. He’s different.”
“Different” is one way to describe him. “Difficult” is another, though Rivers found the label simplistic.
“I always read how ‘difficult’ he was — and he can be — but I always said, ‘Is he difficult?’ or ‘Is he challenging?’ ” Rivers said. “There’s a difference in those words.”
Rivers coached Rondo from his rookie season in 2006-07 until last season.
Under Rivers, Rondo became a four-time All-Star who twice led the league in assist average. He also became known as challenging to coach and play alongside.
“Because of his IQ,” Rivers said, “he’s always going to have some challenges for his coach — or for anyone — because sometimes he’s ahead of you.”
Brad Stevens, the rookie Celtics coach, agreed.
“He challenges you with his depth of knowledge about the game and what he sees as the game is moving full speed to be right from a coaching standpoint,” Stevens said. “And I think that’s a really good thing.”
Tubby Smith, who coached Rondo at Kentucky, also agreed.
“If you challenge him in practice, he might have a little edge to him,” said Smith, now the coach at Texas Tech, “but then you come back and you watch him from behind closed doors, and there he is working on everything that you probably told him to work on — and he’s probably taking it even further.”
And back at Oak Hill, Steve Smith also agreed.
“He feels like he’s kind of a coach who knows what’s going on and sometimes as a coach, you’ll tell him this, and he’ll say, ‘We need to be running something else,’ ” Smith said. “He may be a little stubborn in that way, in the way that he thinks will be productive for his team.”
And to Rondo, is that assessment fair, that his intelligence makes him . . . challenging?
“Yeah, I think that’s pretty accurate,” Rondo said.
Rondo rattled off past coaches, such as Tubby Smith, Steve Smith, and Doug Bibby, who coached him at Eastern High School in Louisville. He has challenged them all.
“He’s always been a guy who’s willing to speak his mind,” Tubby Smith said.
But along the way, Rondo became known as something else.
“If I haven’t played for you, or you don’t know me as a teammate, then you really don’t know me at all,” Rondo said.
“People get a perception of who I am versus what they read versus actually knowing me. That’s just what it is. That’s just the position we’re in as athletes. That’s the position I’m in as an NBA player.”
Maybe the biggest question is whether he wants to — or will — remain a Celtic.
Embracing his role
“I love it here,” Rondo said last October, after he unveiled a new endorsement deal with the Chinese sports apparel brand ANTA.
“The fans are great here. And Danny has been straightforward with me. This is my team. Why would I want to leave? Why would I want out? I never really backed away from a challenge.”
Ainge believes that Rondo indeed loves Boston and wants to embrace his new role, this new challenge. Stevens believes the same. And so does Rivers.
“I think he wants it, I really do,” Rivers said. “I think he is up for it.”
Is that so? Does Rondo want this, maybe more than others might realize?
“I don’t care what people think,” Rondo said, “but it is what it is.”
Multiple times this season, Rondo has deferred questions about his future, instead referring to the present.
“I’m a Celtic right now,” he said after a shootaround in New York in December.
Until Rondo signs an extension or is traded, his future in Boston is unclear. He is under contract through the 2014-15 season. Free agency intrigues him, but he has said that he could see himself remaining with the Celtics for the rest of his career.
As for rebuilding, Ainge said, “Listen, I feel like there’s a time when we’re all patient with one another. Right now, we’re being patient with Rondo as much as he’s being patient with us. He’s not 100 percent.
“But I think he is with us. I think he is patient and understanding.”
Ainge has been here before. There was a point, he said, when he and Celtics co-owners Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca sat down with Pierce to discuss his patience during a rebuild.
“We understand, you have been very patient and it’s time to get it done or not, to move you somewhere where you can have a chance because you’ve been great to us, and you can move forward — or we need to get something done,” Ainge said they told Pierce.
Soon after, the Celtics acquired Garnett and the Celtics won the title in 2008.
“Rondo shouldn’t be at that place, because this guy got a championship in his second year and he’s been playing with great players for a long, long time,” Ainge said. “He really never has had yet to go through rebuilding. I wouldn’t even count this year as a year of sort of hanging in there because of where he’s at.”
Rondo missed nearly a year because of a knee injury. He returned in January and is shaking off rust. But one part of his game that is as crisp as before is the edge that he brings every night.
A competitive fire
In the Celtics’ March 1 loss to Indiana, Rondo did the following: He broke up a high-five attempt between two Indiana players; he sneaked into an on-court huddle of Indiana players; and when he fell to the court and an Indiana player extended a hand, Rondo turned it down and got up on his own.
“He’s not out there to make friends with his opponent, and that’s less common now than it was in the old days, no question,” said Ainge, who played in the 1980s, an era when all-out brawls were normal.
In fact, Celtics forward Jared Sullinger said earlier this season, when the Celtics were getting pummeled in Houston, a Celtics player shook hands with a Houston player and Rondo erupted.
“When we got in the locker room,” Sullinger said, “[Rondo] pretty much cussed us out, saying, ‘What are you doing? Why are we shaking hands with people that are beating the life out of us?’
“You can tell, he’s an old-school basketball player. It’s no friends for him. It’s all business.”
Teammate Brandon Bass called Rondo “the most competitive person I know” and compared him with a point guard that Bass played with in New Orleans: Chris Paul. “I think it’s a little-guy thing, man,” Bass said. “They’re both killers.”
Detroit Pistons forward Josh Smith and Rondo are close friends and were roommates together at Oak Hill. But, Smith said, “When the ball is [thrown] in the air, we’re not friends for those 48 minutes that we’re playing against each other. He does have that type of mentality.”
Rondo’s antics against the Pacers aren’t anything new, said Tubby Smith, who recounted Rondo doing the same kind of things in practices at Kentucky.
“That’s where we always had that look, like, ‘Rajon, why did you do that?’ ” Smith said. “But you knew why — he was just that competitive. I mean, when we had one-on-one drills, man, a fight might break out. He was just that competitive.”
Part of Rondo’s approach can be traced back to Garnett, who was notorious for his loyalty to teammates and contempt for opponents. Garnett calls Rondo his “little brother” — the two grew that close over six seasons together in Boston.
“He learned under Kevin Garnett,” Sullinger said. “He kind of carries on that legacy.”
But Rondo is no doubt his own person, a “very quiet person,” Josh Smith said.
“He stays to himself, but when you get into his inner circle, which is very small, you get an opportunity to see what type of a good person he is,” Smith said. “The main thing that I’ve known about him is that he’s a perfectionist. He really works hard at whatever he does because he looks at everything as a challenge.”
“Challenge” is the key word there.
“He challenges everybody to be able to increase their knowledge of the game,” Smith continued. “It might be intense sometimes, but he doesn’t mean any harm or anything negative by it. He wants the best out of each and every player that he plays with.”
All in the name of winning.
“I get frustrated,” Rondo told the Globe earlier this season.
“I’ve been frustrated my entire career.
“I always want to win.
“I hate losing — any games we lose, anything I play.”