Rondo's ball movement helps all

WALTHAM, Mass. -- The Boston Celtics were coming off a brilliant first quarter on Wednesday night in which the team generated 13 assists on 14 made field goals and put up 34 points against the Philadelphia 76ers. Rajon Rondo didn't take a shot in the frame, but he had four of those assists in seven minutes and was quarterbacking a gem.

On the team's first possession of the second quarter, Rondo saw Gerald Wallace cutting back door and split four Philadelphia defenders with a bounce pass to the baseline. But Wallace botched the open layup and immediately knew he wouldn't hear the end of it.

"I mean, Rondo, he was fussing about that all night," Wallace said before practice Thursday.

Undeterred, Rondo had a season-high 11 assists as Boston finished with 27 assists (on 41 field goals), its fourth-highest assist total of the season. Rondo's return on Jan. 17 produced a season-high 34 helpers.

For a Boston offense that has plodded for much of the season, Rondo's return -- and his return to his old self in recent games -- has sparked an uptick in pace and a renewed focus on ball movement in generating easier opportunities. The result? Boston's first winning streak since mid-December.

When a reporter asked coach Brad Stevens Thursday about the importance of ball movement, the coach offered, "It's one of the key tenets of our chance of having success."

The most basic numbers shouldn't come as a real surprise. Boston has won 17 games this season, averaging 22.2 assists per contest, but that number drops to 18.8 helpers per game in the team's 33 losses. Boston is 1-17 in games with 17 or fewer assists.

And even with the qualifier that the past two opponents haven't exactly been the toughest teams in the league, you can't help but notice how much crisper Rondo has looked while directing the offense in those outings. There's a different confidence about this team when he's on the floor.

During Rondo's 59 minutes of court time over the past two contests, the Celtics had an offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) of 112.7 points and that number plummeted to 99.3 in the 37 minutes he was off the floor. Rondo's playmaking abilities are giving a jolt to a team that ranks 26th in the league in offensive rating (98.5) through 50 games.

Nowhere has Rondo's presence been more obvious than at the end of games. While the Celtics have struggled to hold on to leads, they were able to keep the 76ers at arm's length on Wednesday night. Clinging to a four-point lead with a minute to go, Rondo danced into traffic in the lane, drew a crowd and calmly delivered a little wraparound pass to Jared Sullinger for a three-point play that essentially sealed the win.

Stevens noted how Rondo was able to "probe the defense" before finding Sullinger. Even as the game speeds up with Rondo on the court, he slows it all down.

"More than anything, it just gives you a peace of mind and an assuredness as an offense that the guy with the ball is going to make the right decision," said Stevens, who noted how much more comfortable Rondo himself has looked as he logs more floor time.

"There were times [Wednesday] that I thought, 'Man, that looked different than the last five or six games,'" Stevens admitted.

That was hammered home by the fact that Rondo and Stevens sat down for a film session before Wednesday's game with an emphasis on pushing the ball in transition.

After a sloppy start, Rondo put his foot on the accelerator when the 76ers started missing shots. He pushed in transition, but never looked out of control. He did, however, run himself so hard that he needed an early breather.

"His push [Wednesday] in the first quarter [was] to a point where he had to be taken out. He was tired because he was really pushing the ball in transition," Stevens said. "That's good for our team, and it's something we've been emphasizing, especially since he's been back."

Rondo got Thursday off from practice while experiencing some general soreness. The Celtics have tread cautiously with him in the early portion of his return from a yearlong absence.

But you can tell Rondo is ramping up. The Celtics' pace factor over the past two games with Rondo on the court? A whopping 100.85 possessions, which would rank behind only the 76ers for the entire season. The Celtics have operated this season at a middle-of-the-pack pace (95.89 possessions; 18th in the league) but that number has jumped to 99.4 over Rondo's past three games.

And maybe Rondo's playmaking abilities are even rubbing off on his teammates (having Jerryd Bayless quarterbacking the second unit helps too). The Celtics have put an emphasis on generating high-percentage looks and are doing so by zipping the ball around. The results were apparent Wednesday, when eight players had assists, including three -- Rondo, Bayless, Sullinger -- with at least five apiece.

Stevens noted the team had a larger-than-usual amount of extra-pass clips after Wednesday's game. Rondo has been contagious.

"I like to make guys' jobs easier," Rondo said earlier this week. "I think I did it the past couple of years, getting guys wide-open looks, high-percentage shots, closer to the basket."

Rondo's teammates have rewarded him by making those shots. Well, except that one layup from Wallace, who now knows better than to miss an easy one.