Rondo passes Russell on assists list

BOSTON -- When Rajon Rondo name-checks his small circle of NBA friends, Josh Smith typically helms a list that rarely includes another player who hasn't worn green.

Before the Boston Celtics hosted the Detroit Pistons on Sunday night at TD Garden, Smith was peppered with questions about the man he calls his "best friend," including how Rondo looks as he works his way back from ACL surgery.

"I've been watching some games with him playing and it looks like he's doing pretty well," Smith said.

Rondo did better than pretty well on Sunday as he handed out a season-high 18 assists and did not turn the ball over while pacing the Celtics to a 118-111 triumph.

Only 10 times over the past three decades has a player registered 18 assists and zero turnovers in a regular-season game. The list includes point guard royalty such as John Stockton, Isiah Thomas, Jason Kidd and Steve Nash.

The idea that there's an even greater level for Rondo to ascend to as he gets healthy should be enough to leave Celtics fans salivating. On this night, Rondo added 11 points and three steals over 33 minutes. But it was the way he directed the offense that resonated, particularly after the Celtics committed a season-high 28 turnovers during Friday's win over the Brooklyn Nets with Rondo giving the ball away seven times that night.

"I made a conscious effort to do a better job of taking care of the ball," Rondo said. "Me being the point and having the ball so much in your hands the entire game, it starts with you."

It started with Rondo, but often ended with one of his teammates. The Celtics generated a whopping 38 assists on 47 made baskets on Sunday. And Rondo absolutely owned the floor.

Early in the first quarter, coming off a pick-and-roll, he hesitated a second near the blocks while scouting the defense, then drove hard down the right side. Drawing two defenders, Rondo did his patented behind-the-back fake, then left his feet near the baseline. He hung just long enough to catch a cutting Brandon Bass in the middle of the paint for a layup.

It was as if the game was simply at a different speed for Rondo despite a frenetic pace that saw the Celtics attempt 97 shots. The Pistons made a little rally in the fourth quarter and were within 10 when Rondo checked back in with seven minutes to play. Trying to break out in transition, Rondo spotted Jerryd Bayless streaking ahead, but had a defender directly in front of him in the backcourt. Rondo contorted his body and managed to muscle a bounce pass that skipped twice before hitting Bayless in stride inside the opposite free-throw line for a dunk.

So just how close is Rondo back to his old self?

"He's there from a standpoint of really impacting the game, there's no question about that," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "It's hard for me to say that he's where he ultimately can be, because every game he gets a little better. Hopefully he just continues to feel better and better."

Later, Stevens added: "I think [Rondo] just has a great feel for the game. I've been lucky to coach some guys that that was their thing -- great savvy, great feel for the game. But none of those guys could do it at this speed, obviously, against this level of competition. He sees things happen quickly, and he's one of the best passers in small areas that I've ever seen."

After the game, Smith entered the Celtics' locker room and posted up in the trainer's room to chat with Rondo while the point guard underwent his typical postgame treatment.

"I think he's doing a good job of being a veteran on the team, teaching these guys verbally and showing them how to do it," said Smith. "He's a player with a very high basketball IQ and he's doing his due diligence to apply it to the game and help these young guys on how to win and how to do it the right way."

And how is Rondo dealing with the challenges of his rehab and a rebuilding season?

"Good. I mean, he's the type of player that accepts challenges and this was just an obstacle in his way," Smith said. "I think that he's overcoming it. Each and every game, each and every week that he's playing, he's picking his numbers up and he's playing the way that everybody knows how he's capable of playing."

Smith said he and Rondo, former high school roommates while playing at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia, have talked about the potential of being teammates at the NBA level down the road. Maybe that's the more amazing part about what Rondo accomplished Sunday: He did it without the All-Star-studded cast that he has had in past seasons.

On this night, it was Kris Humphries as primary beneficiary. Seven of Rondo's assists went to Humphries, who finished with 20 points and 11 rebounds over 27 minutes. That's the same Humphries who watched a couple of Rondo's sneaky passes clang off his hands in recent games.

"Sometimes as a big, you don't know when he's going to throw you the ball," Humphries said. "He's breaking down the D and making passes that you may not even see coming. It's taken a while to get used to being ready when he breaks down the defense."

Then Humphries said what others keep noting, "I don't think he's all the way healthy yet, but he makes plays."

Rondo's 18 helpers pushed him to 4,101 assists for his career, nudging him past Bill Russell (4,100). Only Paul Pierce, Larry Bird, John Havlicek and Bob Cousy sit in front of Rondo. The significance of passing Russell is not lost on the 28-year-old guard.

"Anytime you pass up arguably the best Celtic of all time [and] your name is mentioned in the same breath as him, it's definitely an honor and a compliment," Rondo said. "He wasn't a point guard, but he played here [13 seasons]. To get on the same list and to pass him up is definitely an honor."

He now finds himself in pretty elite company among the top passers in Celtics history. And even after a mesmerizing night like Sunday, you get the sense that he's just warming up.