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Devouring film keeps Rajon Rondo a step ahead

Brad Stevens and Rajon Rondo both spend hours breaking down film.  (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

Mary Schwalm/Associated Press

Brad Stevens and Rajon Rondo both spend hours breaking down film.

WASHINGTON — After games, when the Celtics board their charter plane for a late-night flight, most players and staff members nod off in the darkness.

But Brad Stevens rarely — if ever — sleeps. The rookie head coach instead flips open his laptop and starts watching game film, his face illuminated by the screen’s electronic glow.

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“He’ll be watching film that whole plane ride,” said his wife, Tracy. “I think he’s slept on the plane maybe once all season. If they’re flying, he’s working.”

He might sleep for a bit when they arrive at the team hotel, but often, one of the team’s video coordinators will be at his door with new film early, perhaps by 7 the next morning.

And Stevens, whose Celtics play the Washington Wizards at the Verizon Center here Wednesday, then will brew a cup of black coffee and begin another session, reviewing a past game, studying an upcoming opponent, or both.

“You could probably call me at any point in the day, and I’ll be watching film,” Stevens said recently with a laugh.

It’s the habit of a coach whose first job at Butler University involved spending hours upon hours with three VCR decks in the film room, where he edited tapes.

But for as much film as Stevens devours, he has been equally impressed with how much Rajon Rondo watches, too.

“He probably watches more film than most NBA players,” Stevens said. “Almost like a football player, with how much film he watches.”

And Stevens has come to enjoy breaking down film with his cerebral point guard.

“You sit in the film room, you’re talking about something that is part of a system, but there are things that he sees within an action that may or may not have been a part of the original plan,” Stevens said.

Rondo’s film habits are extensive, involving both his iPhone and iPad.

“I have a guy that sends me film before every game of other teams on my phone,” Rondo said. “He also sends me film of my minutes after the games.”

Either that night or the next morning, Rondo said, he’ll review the footage, which can take 5-10 minutes. What’s he looking for? “Everything, everything,” he said.

“The way I run, the way I go through a pick, if I hold my follow-through — just my entire game.”

Kwame Graves, the Celtics’ coaching associate and head video coordinator, also sends film to Rondo’s iPad via Dropbox.

“At the end of the game, I’ll look up his minutes, and then the way we split it up, we can use when he’s in, when he’s out, and then put it all in one movie and then put it in his Dropbox,” he said.

Graves said he has been feeding Rondo film for about five seasons — and that Rondo requests as much as any Celtic, if not more. Rondo also requests more than just footage from a previous game.

“I remember him saying he wasn’t finishing around the basket as well, so I took some stuff from last year and showed him all his makes around the basket last year,” Graves said.

Rondo said his film habits began years ago at Eastern High School in Louisville, where he played for Doug Bibby.

“I have to give him credit for that,” Rondo said. “I don’t know if guys were doing this in high school, but in high school we watched a lot of film. Nowadays, kids might be doing it, but this is 12, 13 years ago, and we were always watching film.”

Bibby said film is a huge part of his program for two reasons: so that his players could learn the game better and so that they didn’t think he was wrong if he told them they had made a mistake.

Either way, Rondo, whom Bibby described as a visual learner, became hooked.

“He used to break down film with me,” Bibby said. “Sometimes I would even come in the locker room and he was watching film before games.” But why?

“I just always wanted to be ahead, and then obviously tendencies caught up as far as guys and what they like to do,” Rondo said. “But I always wanted to know other teams’ plays. I loved to steal the ball.”

Along with his athleticism, big hands, and long wingspan, learning the opposition’s plays helped Rondo be in prime position to pick off a pass. He called this tactic “jumping” an opponent’s play.

“In high school, it’s easy to jump a play because it’s obviously not as fast, and in the pros, it’s completely different,” Rondo said.

But Bibby said “jumping” plays led Rondo to sometimes abandon whatever defensive scheme his team was running so that he could try for a steal.

“He would watch film and he would know every play the other team is running,” Bibby said, “and I liked it because we would win, but I was like, ‘Rajon, you’re not going to be able to cheat every play. You’ve got to able to know how to play off the ball.’ I used to always get on him about cheating the play. But he was that good about doing it. He really was.”

When asked about jumping plays, Rondo laughed and said, “Yeah, I’ve gotten better about that.”

Still, he ranks as one of the league’s best thieves, leading the NBA in steals in 2009-10 (2.3 per game) while ranking in the top five in two other seasons.

Rondo now views all games — NBA, college, whatever — with an analytical eye.

“When I watch a game,” he said, “I break it down and see what kind of passes guys should have made, when they should have shot the ball . . .”

Tubby Smith said Rondo carried that habit to the University of Kentucky, too.

“That’s what you can appreciate and that’s what you love about Rajon,” said Smith, the former Kentucky head coach who is now coaching at Texas Tech. “He’s putting in the time behind closed doors.”

“He’s always watching something,” Stevens said. “He’s always talking about it. He’s always thinking about it. He’s a student of the game.”

Baxter Holmes can be reached at baxter.holmes@globe.com.
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