BOSTON -- Even after a four-day layoff and two productive practice sessions, the Celtics' offense still looked anemic at times during a 90-85 loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday.
Without Rajon Rondo, things could have been a whole lot worse.
With his club failing repeatedly to convert baskets off of set plays, Rondo took the initiative, and ended up with a game-high 24 points on 8-of-16 shooting, to go along with seven assists and three steals over a team-high 38 minutes.
But this wasn't the Rondo who sits behind picks and rifles off jump shots. This was the Rondo who sticks his head down and goes full-force to the rim, in whatever situation he finds himself in. Whether it was in the halfcourt or in transition, Rondo just kept motoring forward, often outpacing both his teammates and the Dallas defense, and the result was often either a layup at the rim or a trip to the free throw line.
Rondo shot a game-high 12 free throws, making eight of them -- two figures Boston can certainly live with. The more promising notion is that he was so willing to put himself there in the first place.
"Rajon’s amazing, period," said Kevin Garnett, who chipped in 16 points of his own. "You talk about big things are coming, big things are here. Rajon’s keeping us alive every night, we just have to make sure we follow his lead, follow his effort, and we’re going to turn this thing around. We’re a group of hard-working guys; you do the hard work and then you start to see lights. That’s what it is."
Garnett was right about following Rondo's lead, as it was nearly impossible for he -- or any other Celtic -- to get ahead of Rondo on the break at the pace he was moving at. It was the type of aggressive performance from the Celtic point guard that hasn't been seen in recent games, and it came during a contest when Boston's offense once again got off to a sluggish start.
The Celtics tallied just 15 first-quarter points, with Rondo accounting for seven of those by consistently motoring up the court. He scored his first basket in transition off of a Dallas turnover, added another coast-to-coast layup minutes later, and then was fouled in transition off of a Garnett outlet pass.
"I just try to attack, be aggressive, get us easy baskets -- easy baskets, if it's for myself or if it's for my teammates," Rondo said. "Right now our offense is behind our defense, so getting easy looks is going to help."
The easy baskets were especially important for a Celtics club still searching for reasons behind their early-game offensive woes.
"I didn't like it, it didn't feel good," Ray Allen said of the slow start. "Starting the first quarter the way we didn't score points, I hate the way it looks. But, again, we had great looks offensively. I don't know what you attribute to it -- if having four days off, you attribute it to that, who knows?"
Fortunately, Boston was able to respond with 26 points in the second frame, and that spurt was, not surprisingly, led by Rondo, who generated nine points of his own during the quarter, six of which came at the free throw line -- a sign of his aggressiveness.
Four of Rondo's assists came in the second half as he helped spark guys like Allen and Garnett, who combined for 15 second-half points. Rondo chipped in eight second-half points on top of that, with his final bucket coming in appropriate fashion on a strong right side drive and a layup at the rim.
Wednesday's Rondo is the one the Celtics will need moving forward, at least until they can get out of their own way on the offensive end of the floor. Paul Pierce was almost entirely absent offensively, (except for a late-game 3-pointer that tied the game at 85) scoring just five points on 2-of-5 shooting, and even Allen, who's arguably been Boston's most consistent offensive player to this point, took only eight shots and scored nine points -- his first finish in single digits this season.
"I think this is [Rondo's] team right now, until everybody else gets it going," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "We need him to be aggressive. We need him to be a scorer, and attack. That’s a change, but that’s what it is right now until everybody else gets it going, because they are not. Ray (Allen) to me is playing pretty well, but we’ve got to get Paul (Pierce) going, we’ve got to get Kevin (Garnett) more consistent offensively even though I thought he was pretty good today with the defensive load that he had to carry. But I want Rondo to be aggressive."
Asked if Rondo is that much better than everyone else on the team right now, Rivers put the question back to the reporter.
"What do you think? I mean, honestly? What do you see? Yeah. Yeah, he is," said Rivers. "Ray’s right there; Ray’s playing terrific, too. And Kevin, defensively, has been pretty good; Offensively, we’ve still got to get him going more. But Rondo’s just playing terrific. And we’ve got to allow him to be terrific. We shouldn’t get in his way. And that’s what we’re doing.”