Rajon Rondo makes all the difference

BOSTON -- One hour and 45 minutes before game time, Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens finally made it official by announcing Rajon Rondo would play in his team's season opener after all. Stevens then was asked how Rondo's presence would alter the game plan.

"It doesn't change anything," Stevens said.

Ah, Coach, we disagree.

Everything changed once No. 9 padded his left hand, slipped on a sleek black sleeve and commenced his assault on the Brooklyn Nets.

Actually, the Nets were merely a prop. The assault was as much against those who think Rondo is no longer an elite point guard, who think he is injury prone, a divo (the Italian word for a male diva) or a mercenary playing for a contract.

Some (or all) of those things may be true, but the Celtics don't care. They are a different team when Rondo is distributing the ball and pushing tempo and imposing his will on the game.

See Rondo hit Kelly Olynyk with a textbook pass in transition. See Rondo fire a bounce pass to Tyler Zeller on the block for a slam. See Rondo decimate the Nets with a series of high pick-and-roll plays, including utilizing an Olynyk screen in the fourth quarter to rise up, appear as if he is about to drill a 14-footer, then hit a cutting Avery Bradley for a layup instead.

"Did you see how he picked that defense apart?" said a giddy Evan Turner, who had played only limited minutes alongside Rondo in preseason as he recovered from his broken hand. "He was unbelievable. He brings our team to a different level."

If you are looking for tangible reasons the Celtics annihilated Brooklyn 121-105 in the season opener, Boston's tenacious defense is a legitimate place to start. But if you are wondering how the Celtics, who normally are offense-challenged, were able to shoot better than 61 percent for a huge portion of this game, pin 101 points on Brooklyn through three quarters and waltz away with eight of their 10 players in double figures, then go talk to the point guard.

"I felt about 91 percent tonight," Rondo deadpanned.

His current and former teammates felt that was more than enough.

"Rondo was classic," lauded Kevin Garnett, who still looks miscast in a Nets uniform. "I don't know what he said he was, 89, 83 percent? That's a hell of an 83 percent."

"You have a leader that's commanding guys, telling them where to go, and just making the game easier for other people," Olynyk gushed.

Remember when Rondo declared he was the best point guard in the league? It wasn't true, but back then it wasn't completely far-fetched, because he was making a case to be in the conversation.

That was before the Big Three was splintered to pieces, before Rondo tore his ACL, before his contract started trending as the most intriguing thing about him, before he fell in the shower and slipped from the national basketball public's consciousness.

It has been dutifully noted that Rondo lives for the big stage. In the old (glory) days, that often meant when the lights of a national television telecast were shining on him. Those opportunities will be fleeting this season, so Rondo's platform was the season opener and his return from injury, which came a week ahead of schedule.

He looked comfortable, confident and creative. He wasn't afraid to initiate contact. In fact, in Rondo's opening defensive assignment, he was banging with 6-foot-7 Bojan Bogdanovic as he tried to establish position on the block.

For the first half of the game, Rondo appeared content to facilitate, but somewhere around the 7:40 mark of the third quarter, he embarked on one of his little "so you think I can't score?" jags. He ripped off nine points in a row for Boston, including back-to-back drives off that high pick-and-roll, a pick-and-pop over 7-footer Jerome Jordan and a straight-on 3-pointer that, incredibly, banked in.

"I called that," he said, with a hint of a smile.

By the time the beleaguered Nets called time, down 84-60, Rondo had 11 points, 10 assists and six rebounds.

Had Stevens not been limiting his minutes, Rondo could have been on his way to recording a triple-double to kick off the 2014-15 campaign. Instead, he "settled" for 13 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds in 29 minutes.

In his postgame news conference, Stevens said he expected Rondo to have a big night.

"He absolutely destroyed our guys Friday at practice," Stevens said. "I thought it was really great until I watched the film and thought our team stunk.

"So that was a little bit of fool's gold, I thought. But the last couple of days he's looked like himself. He kind of looks like what I'd seen on film before I got here."

When Rondo moves the ball instead of pounding it, when he hunkers down and plays pressure defense instead of his gambling ball-hawking tactics, he can be a game-changer.

Here's hoping he sticks to the script.

"We've got to keep playing unselfishly and play with that kind of pace to be good," Stevens said.

The coach treated the crowd to a few looks at a small-ball lineup that featured Bradley, Marcus Smart (a strong debut on the defensive end) and Rondo out there together. Predictably, the trio attempted to cause havoc with frenetic pressure that was, at times, more entertaining than effective. Yet the potential to disrupt is there. All three have proven to be high-energy defenders at various points of their careers.

The Celtics were quick to point out the win only counts once. Left unsaid was that it was secured against a surprisingly listless group of Brooklyn veterans.

Yet, as Stevens noted, the Celtics also sprinted out to a huge halftime lead in the season opener last year, and they blew it down the stretch. At the time, Rondo was in street clothes, still recovering from his knee injury.

He's back.

"I'm going to play a lot better," Rondo promised.

I believe him.