Understanding the Celtics Without #9


The Monday after it was announced that Rajon Rondo would require season ending surgery on his ACL I didn’t feel the need to write anything. Wasn’t really a reason for it. Twitter covered the initial, perhaps overdramatic reaction and a day later it seemed like every other angle was covered in local papers and blogs. But after the Celtics went on a predictable four game win-streak Celtic Nation seems more divided than ever on the value of their all-star Point Guard.

Bill Simmons once wrote that rooting for Rondo was like owning a cat stating that he “disappears, you can’t count on him, you can’t figure him out…” Funny, but not entirely accurate. Because after watching Rondo helm the reigns of my favorite team I don’t think it’s all that difficult to figure out ‘the league’s most mysterious man.’

Rajon Rondo’s brain is both his gift and his curse. He sees things on the court – particularly in transition – that no one else can. He pays an incredible amount of attention to the importance of delivering passes both on target and in rhythm. And while he’s known around the league as a poor shooter; when he’s forced to shoot, or when he steps into a shot confidently he’s quite talented. Likewise, when he has too much time to think about a shot, or is dared to do so he can often look about as bad as a middle school girl shooting the ball for the first time. If you were to watch a tape of only the release of his jump shots you’d probably be able to guess every one that went in based on the fluidity of the release.

Likewise, it comes as no coincidence that 20 of his career 27 career triple doubles have come on national television – he’s painfully aware that at 6’1, 170 pounds* he simply can’t take the kind of contact, or use up the kind of energy he does when the light shines the brightest 82 games a year. Which is why he’s so beloved nationally, while being so polarizing locally. He’s the Senator’s Wife – perfect when the lights are on, unwilling to abandon her sweatpants every other night: That’s why you’ll hear cries that this team is better without Rondo in a four game winning streak that include wins over the Kings, Magic and Chris Paul-less Clippers (games Rondo likely would metaphorically ‘no-show’) but not when he’s  averaging nearly 21 points, 11 assists, 7 rebounds and 2 steals in a seven game series against the eventual NBA Champion Miami Heat.

Now I don’t mean to say that to completely discount the Celtics current winning streak by any means. Nor to suggest that they don’t have a puncher’s chance in this season’s playoffs. Because it has been impressive, and in this Eastern Conference they certainly do. And while the Celtics aren’t necessarily better without Rondo, the offensive sets they’re running without him are. And these things don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

When the current Rondo-less Celtics offense is clicking  in the half court – and not incessantly being run through isolation plays for Paul Pierce – the sets are being run through Kevin Garnett. Garnett, is a gift from the NBA playbook gods. He’s seven feet tall, his mid range game is flawless. He’s an incredible passer for his size. He’s an excellent finisher at the rim, and he’s been painfully underutilized over the past few years.

Watch the video below (it should start at 1:15, but if doesn’t you’ll have to skip forward to it):

Courtney Lee brings up the ball and finds Garnett in the high post. Since Garnett is a capable shooter his man has to stay close to him, while also respecting his ability to drive. From the wing Pierce utilizes a Lee screen and then goes behind Garnett to use his body as a screen.

Screen shot 2013-02-05 at 3.27.34 PM

Pierce then reuses Garnett as a screener and drives. Bringing his man with him as well as Garnett’s.

Screen shot 2013-02-05 at 3.31.52 PM

Correctly, Pierce then passes back to Garnett. Since, despite his size, Garnett is a premiere shooter from midrange the Clippers need to bring weak side help leaving Jason Terry open.

Screen shot 2013-02-05 at 3.33.47 PM

Unfortunately, Garnett’s pass gets slightly tipped. Had it not Terry would’ve been able to either shoot the 3, or pass off to Bass (top corner) if his man charged. The tip of the pass allows the Clippers to momentarily reset their defense, though not for long as quickly Garnett sets a pick to free up Pierce towards the center of the court.

Screen shot 2013-02-05 at 3.38.38 PM

Garnett, able to set a full (and maybe slightly illegal) screen means that his man is forced to either abandon Garnett or let Pierce shoot an uncontested, sixteen foot, Paul Pierce special.

Screen shot 2013-02-05 at 3.41.43 PM

Jordan opts to defend Pierce, which leaves Garnett open for an easy lay-in. Even if Blake Griffin (closest to Garnett) had rotated to the center faster, Brandon Bass (again, top corner) for a wide open midrange jumper.

This is a highlight, but this is the kind of things using KG brings – Seventeen seconds, three Garnett screens that aid in maximizing the skill set of Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and Brandon Bass. That’s how you run a great offense.

The key is that the ball doesn’t start in Rondo’s hands and end in it. Forcing four other guys to watch, hoping to get a chance to catch and shoot. That’s what they’ve been doing for the greater portion of the first half of this season – Not really effective on nights when Rondo’s engaged, painful on nights he wasn’t.

Rajon Rondo is more than capable of running this kind of offense.The Spurs have run sets like this for years, and Tony Parker has never been a good 3 point shooter either (career .314).  Because while Rondo can’t stand in the corner like Lee does, he could make a stronger challenge at the beginning of the play (Lee pretty passively brings up the ball, never a real threat to attack), hit an open midrange shot off the ball (despite his reputation, this shot chart clearly shows that Rondo’s midrange game has drastically improved to an above average level), or cut without the ball.

The good news is what I’ve already said. Rondo is a student of the game, and a fierce competitor. I think he sees these things, absorbs it, and uses it when he comes back. Now, if he only had a good deer antler-spray guy…


* I’m guilty of it myself – but I think not enough is said about that. People want him to dominate like a Lebron or a Durant every night. Put aside the fact that he’s not a particularly great free throw shooter, I just don’t think his body can withstand getting to the free throw line 4 or 5 times a game over the course of 82 games.

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