1. Rondo Returns To Attacking Ways
BOSTON -- Rajon Rondo is likely to wake up Monday morning in Charlotte feeling like he played in Super Bowl XLV. In attacking the basket with renewed vigor during a Super Sunday appetizer against the Orlando Magic, Rondo spent much of his night bouncing off the unforgiving parquet floor, Dwight Howard serving as the oft-unblocked linebacker to Rondo's stand-in-the-pocket quarterback.
Rondo's reward for those bumps and bruises? A season-high 26 points that sparked the Boston Celtics to a 91-80 triumph at the TD Garden in the third and final regular-season battle of last season's Eastern Conference finalists.
"That is how we want him to take the ball to the basket," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who noted during the finale of a four-game road trip in Sacramento last week that he's challenged Rondo to be more aggressive going to the rim.
"Whenever he does go, we want him to go with power and speed and be willing to get fouled. And I thought, over everything, that was [what he did Sunday]. Obviously, he made great shots and all that. I just liked the fact that he had no problem if he got fouled."
On Sunday, Rondo drew more fouls than a henhouse. Nine times he was on the receiving end of an infraction, drawing three calls on both Jameer Nelson and Ryan Anderson, two more on Dwight Howard, and one on Earl Clark.
Rondo entered Saturday's game shooting a career low 51.6 percent at the line in 38 appearances. What's more, he was averaging less than half (1.7) of the mere 3.5 free throw attempts per game he averaged last season. This season, Rondo had attempted more than four free throws in only three games.
For a player that creates so much opportunity for himself and his teammates by going toward the basket, Rivers essentially wanted to take away his ability to shift into reverse when his path became obscured.
On Sunday, one of the NBA's most fear-inspiring road blocks (Howard) often impeded Rondo's path, but he rarely detoured. Rondo finished with a season-high nine free throw attempts (making seven of them), while also handing out seven assists.
Rondo saved his finest work for a third quarter that changed the complexion of the game. Boston came out of halftime nursing a three-point lead, but connected on nine of its first 10 shots to start the second half and its lead quickly ballooned to 15.
Rondo assisted on a Ray Allen 3-pointer to key a quick seven-point burst to start the frame. After Orlando scrambled for a quick timeout, Rondo drew a shooting foul on Nelson (made both freebies), then got an offensive call on Howard for an illegal screen.
That screen left Rondo on the ground for an extended stay, Howard's right knee thrusting directly into Rondo's right thigh as he tried to chase his man over a pick-and-roll.
He dusted himself off and fed Paul Pierce at the other end of the floor as Boston's lead reached double digits.
After a layup and a 20-foot jumper, Rondo was oozing so much confidence that he raced past Gilbert Arenas on the baseline looking to put someone on a poster. Howard stepped up and prevented that with his long arms, but Rondo earned two more freebies (both of which he made).
Next trip down, he added a 3-pointer of his own. And when the defense collapsed again on the ensuing drive, he fed Kevin Garnett for an easy layup and a 70-55 cushion with 3:35 to play in the third frame.
Boston kneeled out the clock from there.
"I thought Rondo took the third over," Garnett said. "Second half, Rondo controlled the game, controlled the tempo, and I thought he and Paul [Pierce] were aggressive early on and we just fed off that."
Rondo likes to note that he takes what the defense gives him. He said Sunday that the Magic were clinging to Pierce and Allen, so he took advantage of available driving lanes. But this is the sort of effort the Celtics have been looking for since Rondo's aggressiveness ended the Cleveland Cavaliers season (and LeBron James' tenure there) in last season's playoffs.
That's why the effort didn't exactly faze Delonte West, who, as a member of that same Cavaliers team, had a front-row seat for Rondo's exploits.
"Actually, I've seen better: I've seen him in practices, and I've been on the opposing end of that playing with Cleveland," West said. "He's a very talented player. In my opinion, he's the best point guard in the NBA, but you leave that to the experts."
The Magic like their guy, but they'd be hard-pressed to argue with West's proclamation after Sunday.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Rondo converted seven field goals from inside of 5 feet of the basket, which tied a season-high (Nov. 30 at Cleveland).
Rivers admitted he doesn't need Rondo to be this aggressive every night, but he does know it's important to get him to the line frequently in order to build confidence in his free-throw shooting and, thereby, keep him willing to attack the basket.
Rivers knows a thing or two about a point guard's need to improve their free-throw shooting in order to maintain their aggressiveness as he actually holds the NBA's all-time record for single-season increase in free-throw percentage, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Rivers shot 60.8 percent for Atlanta in 1985-86 before improving to 82.8 percent the next season.
If Rondo has two perceived weaknesses, it's his jump shot and his free-throw shooting. This season he's made tremendous strides with his midrange jumper, turning that into a consistent weapon (as he showed Sunday by hitting a couple long-distance chucks).
Now he's dispelling the myth that he can't make free throws, one fearless drive at a time. And it's enough to make you wonder what anyone will complain about once he's shored up that aspect of his game.
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter
2. Heat Warming To The Chase
MIAMI -- Their recent positive stretch has put the Miami Heat right to the Boston Celtics' heels in the Eastern Conference standings and also enabled Miami to hold off the charging Chicago Bulls, who are right behind them. In case you haven't been following, those teams are intensifying the race for the top three seeds.
Already 0-2 against Boston this season from October and November losses before they'd found a stride, the Heat can't help but focus on the Celtics now that they're mostly healthy.
"I think we have big-picture and small-picture goals," LeBron James said. "You can't help but to look at the big picture. There are games that mean a lot. That game next Sunday could mean a lot if we continue to handle business right now."
This Sunday that meant avenging last month's loss, when the Heat were steamrolled for 44 points in the first quarter at Staples Center as they were overwhelmed by Blake Griffin and some of his energetic teammates. This time, perhaps with some help from an early tip-off in a popular road city, the Clippers didn't score their 44th point until well into the third quarter.
Griffin had his moments, throwing down three dunks and racking up 21 points with 16 rebounds as he builds another double-double streak. But he was just 7-of-17 shooting and that still represented the best offensive option the Clippers had.
"We came out with incredible energy at both ends of the court," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "We were as active as we can be."
Spoelstra has slowly turned up the praise on his team during the winning streak. While he's attempted to sequester his team from expectations and urged them to pay attention to the in-house schedule of development during the season, this recent streak has even allowed the coach to start peeking at the standings.
"This last 2-3 weeks has been a segment of the year where we feel we're getting complete," Spoelstra said. "Guys are encouraged by our health and everyone is getting comfortable in their roles. We can make a push and get some momentum going into the break. It's not the most important thing right now. We're not obsessed with the other teams in the standings but what I told the guys is we might as well as put ourselves in position next Sunday to pass [the Celtics]."
• See Windhorst's full story, click here »
3. The Endless Road To Infamy
Seven of their players scoring more than 10 points weren't enough to prevent the Cleveland Cavaliers from suffering their record-setting 24th straight loss on Saturday, 111-105 to Portland. The Cavs had won the past 13 times they had at least seven players score more than 10 points by an average margin of almost 18 points. Their last such loss was nearly 19 years ago, at Milwaukee on Feb. 18, 1992.
• For more Elias notes, click here »
4. Daily Dime Live Recap
Zach Harper, TrueHoop Network bloggers and fans gave their in-game opinions throughout Sunday's slate of NBA games in Daily Dime Live.
5. Extreme Behavior
Amare Stoudemire, Knicks: The Sixers couldn't even hope to contain Amare when he's on a roll. He was an impressive 17-for-21 from the field, 7-for-7 on free throws and had four blocks in his 41-point performance in the 117-103 win over the Sixers.
Gilbert Arenas, Wiz: With a sore knee, the Hibachi formerly known as Agent Zero still has a ways to go before he's even 90 percent physically. He missed all seven shots in the 91-80 road loss to Boston.
TWEET OF THE DAY
-- Steve Nash, who apparently just likes the Grey Cup commercials.
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
"I've got a Super Bowl party, man. C'mon."
-- LeBron James, chafing at a lengthy video review of an Eddie House foul.
6. NBA Video Channel
7. Clash Of Stars
8. Day Of Domination
NEW YORK -- The only downer on a day of domination for Amare Stoudemire was the technical foul he picked up from referee Bob Delaney for skipping in frustration after he was whistled for a reaching-in foul.
To Stoudemire, it was like being ticketed for driving 56 mph in a 55-mph zone.
To Delaney, a former New Jersey state trooper, it was a violation that probably only merited a warning.
At least that's what Stoudemire said Delaney told him.
"After talking to him, he really didn't think that was a bad play on my part. He felt more lenient, toward I might get that one taken away. So I'll see how it goes," Stoudemire said after scoring 41 points on 17-for-21 shooting in one of the best games he has played all season, a 117-103 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers that kept the New York Knicks from falling to .500.
The technical he picked up Sunday afternoon was Stoudemire's 14th of the season, moving him within two techs of the dreaded No. 16 -- which brings with it an automatic one-game suspension, as would technical fouls No. 18, 20, 22, ...
Stoudemire has had one technical foul rescinded this season, while the player he shared the league lead with, Dwight Howard of Orlando, has had four techs wiped off his record after further review by the league office.
"I don't know how you play the game without emotion. The guy never curses, he never is overly done," Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni said. "If he was my son, I'd say he's pretty good. So I don't know. I don't get it."
Stoudemire's 41-point performance overshadowed another strong game from Knicks rookie Landry Fields, who made five 3-pointers, shot 10-for-13 and scored 25 points with a team-leading 10 rebounds just a few hours after he was conspicuously absent from a proposed three-team trade between the Knicks, Nuggets and Timberwolves reported by ESPN's Chris Broussard that would send Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks, Eddy Curry to the Timberwolves and Corey Brewer and Wilson Chandler to the Nuggets.
• See Sheridan's full post: click here »
9. Clippers Chasing Respectability
MIAMI -- Early in the third quarter of Los Angeles Clippers' 97-79 loss to the Miami Heat on Sunday, Clippers center DeAndre Jordan dropped another pass on an otherwise well-choreographed pick-and-roll play. As the ball rolled out of bounds, Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro folded his hands on top of his head, retreated down the sideline, then threw his arms defiantly in the air.
Another missed opportunity.
"We just couldn't put enough offensive pressure on them at all," Del Negro said. "We just didn't shoot a high enough percentage, and then we started turning the ball over."
On Kids Day at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, the youthful Clippers appeared right at home. They played a spirited game and scrapped for nearly 48 minutes, but were outclassed by a savvier, more talented opponent. As the Clippers establish themselves as sexy up-and-comers in a league that loves promise, the loss to the Heat was a pointed reminder that their learning curve will be steep. The Clippers have achieved respectability -- just read the transcript of Erik Spoelstra's gushing pregame news conference for evidence of that.
• See the full Arnovitz story: click here »