Nine games into the 2011-12 season, on the heels of a less-than-inspiring loss to the Dallas Mavericks, Celtics coach Doc Rivers gave us one of the earliest hints that his team now belonged to Rajon Rondo.
"I think this is [Rondo's] team right now," said Rivers. "Until everybody gets it going."
Everybody else got it going; it was still Rondo's team.
Throughout Boston's second-half surge and ensuing run to the brink of the NBA Finals, Rivers stressed that one of the keys to the Celtics' turnaround was everyone understanding that the reins had been handed from the Big Three to Rondo.
Rivers only reaffirmed that sentiment this week when he opened up to Yahoo! Sports about the departure of Ray Allen and absolved Rondo of any blame that his fractured relationship with Allen might have played in the 37-year-old shooting guard's decision to sign with the rival Heat.
"People can use all the Rondo [relationship with Allen] stuff -- and it was there, no doubt about that -- but it was me more than Rondo," Rivers told Yahoo! at the London Olympics. "I'm the guy who gave Rondo the ball. I'm the guy who decided that Rondo needed to be more of the leader of the team. That doesn't mean guys liked that -- and Ray did not love that -- because Rondo now had the ball all the time."
In voicing support for Rondo, Rivers attempted to deflect any blame that could have been directed the way of his young point guard regarding Allen's diminished role and decision to leave Boston.
That's what teams do with their star players -- they protect them. They attempt to shield them from outside criticism and take away all the distractions that might prevent them from thriving on the floor.
This is the first time, maybe in his career, that Rondo hasn't had to deal with his name in trade rumors. And before Allen's departure -- and Rondo's role in that decision -- could become a headache, Rivers stood up in unwavering support of his point guard.
The "Rondo is our guy" movement, ironically, started right after Boston's failed quest to trade him away in last year's lockout-shortened offseason. Spurned in their quest to land Chris Paul, the Celtics moved quickly to rally around Rondo and suggest that those trade rumors were actually the highest of compliments.
If the Celtics were willing to part with Rondo eight months ago -- and, remember, it's easier to make that decision when you're getting a franchise player back to pair with the Big Three -- they soon flip-flopped and decided he was the type of player they could build the future around.
That confidence came, in large part, from Rondo's inspired play last season when he averaged 11.9 points and a league-best 11.7 assists per game. Rondo was downright dazzling at times, both in the regular season and on the big stage in the playoffs. He finished eighth in the MVP balloting and carried the team at times.
Even before last season, the familiar catchphrase was, "As goes Rondo, so go the Celtics." But during the 2011-12 campaign, Rondo ascended to another level with his on-court leadership and even the Big Three seemed to acknowledge they were now the complementary pieces.
It was after that early January loss to Dallas that Kevin Garnett suggested climbing on Rondo's back would be key to turning things around.
"Rajon's amazing, period," said Garnett. "We 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 and follow his effort, and we're going to turn this thing around."
He couldn't have been more right. Boston surged in the second half -- thanks in large part to Rondo's increased role and Garnett's resurgence -- and ended up with two chances to knock out the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals.
Rivers admitted to Yahoo! that he gave Rondo more responsibility with the ball on the floor as the season went on, essentially ensuring the 26-year-old would dictate the success of a veteran team. And those veterans had to accept that, begrudgingly or not.
During the playoffs Rivers noted, "They understand Rondo is the leader of the team. Everybody else plays with Rondo. Kevin is still a great player. Paul is still our best scorer. They've kind of gotten out of each other's way with roles."
Roles in basketball are somewhat of a fallacy. Pierce is still the captain; Garnett is still the defensive backbone and the conscience of the team. Off the court, those two are still the leaders. There is really no reason to anoint someone the "on-the-court leader," that player typically earns that title with his play on the floor.
And that's what Rondo did.
Rivers used the departure of Allen to hammer that home with his comments to Yahoo! In talking about Allen's diminished role, Rivers noted, "Here's what wasn't going to change: The ball's not going to be in Ray's hands more, the ball's going to be in Rondo's hands."
Yes, this is Rondo's team now. The Big Three era ended with Allen's departure, but the reins had already been passed.