Rajon Rondo was brutally honest Friday morning.
If he had just decided to play along with this return to Boston story, emphasizing he played with a dislocated left elbow, that he returned from a torn right anterior cruciate ligament, embraced a rebuilt roster, that he said several times he wanted to remain here, then Friday night would have gone without a glitch.
But that’s not Rondo’s style. He adores glitches, shakeups, tremors. And during his eight-minute session with the media hours before his Dallas Mavericks faced the Celtics at TD Garden, Rondo casually acknowledged that in the last few years, he didn’t always play with motivation.
Rondo was asked about his defense, which has improved dramatically since joining the Mavericks. Entering Friday, Dallas had allowed 105.1 points per 100 possessions before the trade, and that number has reduced to 100.6 since.
In Boston, Rondo was considered an above-average defender but inside NBA circles, he was considered a lazy defender who collected steals because he gambled and read passing lanes. Opposing point guards dived into the paint at will against his lackadaisical defense.
It seems that when Rondo was traded to a championship contender, Dec. 18, he decided to adjust to his environment, a testament to his uneven effort during his final years in Boston.
“I haven’t played defense in a couple of years,” he said. “I’ve been able to hide a lot with Avery Bradley on the ball, helping me out, the young guy. But here, they expect me to play defense. In the West, if you don’t play defense, you’ll get embarrassed at the point guard position, so I took it as a challenge.’’
While those comments were the discussion of sports talk radio Friday afternoon, and perhaps tainted his legacy, Rondo maintained his gratitude for the Celtics, realizing his potential place in the team’s rich history.
But if those comments weren’t enough to exemplify his rejuvenation since joining the Mavericks, he reminded the Celtics’ faithful with 29 points, including the first 10 of the game. On Friday, Rondo was magic, hitting 12 of 19 field goal attempts, including a career-best five 3-pointers in the Mavericks’ 119-101 victory. It was as if he was the star of those basketball movies in which the invisible angel guides every shot into the hoop. It was surreal, and the message was clear.
Rondo wanted the TD Garden faithful who begged for his full investment each night to know he was still capable, even though it occurred in the royal blue jerseys of the Mavericks.
“Obviously it was a special day today, I’m emotionally tired, I’m physically tired, I’m drained,” he said. “It was a tough game to get through. I’ve been here for nine years and tonight my outside shot was going down. I don’t think I’ve ever been this tired after a game before.”
It was Rondo’s classic tribute to himself, a perfect portrait of how polarizing he was as a Celtic. Both his supporters and detractors had an ample list of reasons to state why his departure was the right or the wrong move, and after Friday, there are still no black or white answers, only gray ones.
The Rondo who appeared in a Dallas uniform was one the Celtics could have built around, but it was obvious he had become bored and complacent during his final days in Boston. He played the good trouper. He said all the right things. But winning is his motivation, especially with a maximum contract at stake.
The Celtics, with their current roster, were not going to get that Rondo. He did not want to continue to be the most expensive part on a Yugo. And as their performance Friday indicated, the Celtics are in full development mode.
As much as coach Brad Stevens tries to convince himself and the players that winning is the primary goal, scoring a high lottery pick has replaced that delusion. Rondo was misplaced in Boston, a relic on a team filled with unproven younger players who were in high school in 2008.
It was time for Rondo to depart, to show the NBA community he still has plenty left, for him to watch his video montage, acknowledge the crowd and move on, because the Celtics certainly have. We’ll see Rondo in 2018 or 2023 or 2028, whenever the ’08 team decides to reunite.
The 2008 tributes are officially done. Everybody has come back, tipped their caps, and returned home. Rondo got his rightful respect Friday night.
Overall, his time here was a resounding success, but it has reached its end, with no regrets from either side. And Rondo said just enough to secure his legacy here, although his after-the-fact honesty was a testament to his ambivalence.
He refused to admit he is playing with an even bigger desire to prove he remains among the elite point guards. But he is playing with more desperation and insecurity, similar to the Rondo during his first several seasons in Boston, when he tried to embarrass Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, and Derrick Rose. A motivated Rondo is an elite Rondo.
“I wouldn’t say [I have a chip on my shoulder],” he said. “It’s just I’m very blessed to be playing basketball again. I took a long time off with my ACL injury and I think I took basketball for granted up to a certain point, being able to go out there every night and do what I love to do.
“I don’t know if I was able to show it as much while I was a Celtic but now, I would say I’m still very humbled and blessed to still be playing basketball, something I love to do every night. So I don’t take it for granted and that’s just how I play the game now.”
That passion comes a little too late for some Celtics’ faithful.