WALTHAM, Mass. -- Boston Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo offered a local pigskin comparison when asked about individual criticism that he's heard as part of his team's fourth-quarter struggles this season.
"It doesn’t matter to me," said Rondo. "I’ve been here longest, I’m the team captain, and I’m the point guard, so, just like in football, in the beginning they blamed [quarterback Tom] Brady a lot [when the New England Patriots struggled]. It’s part of it. It’s not weighing on me at all."
With Wednesday's loss in Charlotte, the Boston Celtics fell to 4-9 this season in games in which the team was within five points in the final five minutes of play. The Celtics' team defensive rating in those "clutch" situation balloons to 116.4 points per 100 possessions, the second worst mark in the league. What's more, Boston, which actually ranks near the top 10 in turnover percentage for the season, plummets to 23rd overall in frequency of giveaways during crunch time situations.
Rondo has eaten his share of the blame pie for defensive lapses and turnovers that have hurt his team in those situations, including on Wednesday night against the Hornets.
What's more, Rondo has struggled to generate his own offense late in games when some of Boston's younger players tend to defer to him. In 143 minutes of fourth-quarter play this year, Rondo is 12-of-43 shooting (a team-worst 27.9 percent) with 30 rebounds, 42 assists and 19 turnovers. He is minus-47 in plus/minus in the fourth quarter.
Rondo has accepted that blame for the team's struggles. But peppered with questions Thursday about the criticism lobbed his way recently, Rondo downplayed it all.
"I’ve been playing here for nine years, I’m one of the best at what I do, and I’m human," he said. "I make mistakes. I own up to my mistakes and that’s just part of the game."
Later he added: "It’s not weighing on me at all. It’s a team effort. ... I am the captain, but there are 15 guys on this team and we’re all in this together."
Celtics coach Brad Stevens was asked if he believes Rondo has put too much of the team's struggles on himself this season.
"I think he has an idea that, as a leader, and an older guy that you have to be accountable," said Stevens. "And, at the same time, if he says, ‘Hey, this one’s on me,’ or he says something to that extent, none of us think that. We all were accountable for all the different things that went wrong in a loss or in a win. I think, as a teammate, and as a person on the team, you appreciate that accountability but you certainly don’t think that that’s the case. But it’s part of being a leader."
Jeff Green, one of Boston's other veteran players who endured heavy individual criticism as the focal point of the Celtics' offense when Rondo was rehabbing last season, likewise said it's on the team as a whole to turn around their fourth-quarter fortunes.
"It’s a team game. It’s not all on Rajon," said Green. "Sometimes the game could be my fault, sometimes it could be [Jared Sullinger's] fault. It’s not about individuals taking on ownership of each game, it’s about the team and us stepping up with what we could do better."
Ultimately, the Celtics need to be a better defensive team in crunch time. Opponents have shot 49.4 percent in those clutch situations (+/- 5 points, last 5 minutes), the second highest mark in the league. Boston's offense, which often goes stagnant late in games, particularly when forced to take the ball out of bounds after opponent makes, has been unable to keep up with opponents in those situations.
Hey, it could be worse. The Celtics could be bickering at one another like the New York Knicks, who visit Boston on Friday night. And at least Rondo isn't stomping off the court spewing venom about his team being "soft" like his breakfast buddy Kobe Bryant.
No, these Celtics have pledged to stick together and fight through their fourth-quarter adversity. Boston players have taken the optimistic approach wondering how much better the team's record could be if they won some of these tight games.
They've turned a deaf ear to the criticism. And that approach started at the top with Rondo.