Rajon Rondo starts in attack mode

NEW YORK -- Well, how does 31 points, 13 assists and 5 steals in the season opener look right now? All that trade talk leading into the season sure seemed to be bothering Rajon Rondo on Christmas Day, didn't it?

You half-expected something like this from the Boston Celtics' point guard and de facto leader, especially with Paul Pierce sidelined. Getting Rondo to be even more aggressive and assertive than usual -- and that is asking a lot -- has been one of Celtics coach Doc Rivers' main goals for the 2011-12 season. Let's just say that despite the 106-104 loss to the New York Knicks on Sunday, the sight of Rondo driving, colliding, shooting, passing, defending and thieving for more than 41 minutes constitutes an inarguable bright spot for the day.

"This is the Rondo we want," Rivers said after the game. "This is what we talked about last year. Getting to the free-throw line. Taking the shots when they're open. I thought he was the aggressor in the game. I don't know if [he] can do that every night, but overall, that's the Rondo that we want. It was terrific."

You can thank Employee No. 9 for keeping the Celtics from sliding into the Hudson River in the first half, which saw New York take a 17-point lead in what looked to be an impending blowout. Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen were, to be charitable, slow to the take. Had it not been for Rondo and, later, Brandon Bass, the Celtics would have been buried even deeper than they were.

"He attacked. He attacked early. He set the tone, got into the paint, softened up their defense," Allen said. "It's a great sign for us."

Attack he did. Rondo threw himself into any available New Yorker, getting one call that prompted a reaction from Tyson Chandler on the Knicks' bench that led to a technical foul. Rondo looked like the ball in a pinball machine, bouncing off Knicks, getting to the line and then -- here's the best part for Celtics fans -- ACTUALLY MAKING THEM! He made 9 of 12 from the stripe. Would you take 75 percent from the line for the season from Rondo? Thought so.

"It wasn't by design. It was just how the game went," Rondo said. Well, there had to be some design because he looked like (a healthy) Adrian Peterson right out of the gates. He took half of his free throws in the first quarter.

"I was just trying to get us into transition," Rondo said. "Trying to get us to the line. Trying to get us some easy looks, get them in the penalty early. But it's only one game. When P [Pierce] gets back, obviously, some of the shots will go to P. Whatever the team needs, whatever Doc wants me to do, that's what I'll do."

Whatever he was doing on this afternoon was working, especially in the third quarter, when the Celtics overwhelmed the Knicks (35-17). Allen finally awakened. Bass was killing the Knicks, especially on the offensive glass. Who knew that Rivers put offensive rebounding into the playbook this season?

But then Rivers allowed Carmelo Anthony to pretty much single-handedly beat the Celtics in the fourth. Rivers admitted afterward that it would probably have been a good idea to take the ball out of the hands of the red-hot Melo (4-of-5, 2-of-2 on 3-pointers and 7-of-8 from the line for 17 points in the period). Rondo was as quiet during that final stretch as Anthony was explosive. He took two shots, one of them a hurried 3, though he did have three assists.

But the Celtics' inability to stop the Knicks, who shot 58 percent in the final quarter and attempted 12 free throws, meant there were fewer chances to run, fewer chances to get in transition, and no chance for Rondo to be what he had been in the first three quarters. Rondo did not get to the line once in the fourth.

"I wanted to be aggressive, but I wanted to get my teammates involved," he said. "Defensively, we should have gotten more stops. That was the problem."

More than one Celtics player used the word "encouraging" to describe the team's performance, which is revealing given that they allowed 106 points, cratered down the stretch, and turned the ball over 19 times. Rondo's play was a big reason for the optimism.

So, too, was Bass, who had 20 points and 11 rebounds, five of them off the offensive glass. Said Rivers, "He's tough. He can finish. He can offensive rebound. He can do a lot of things." Allen ended up with 20 points, but rushed a shot on a critical possession in the fourth with the game tied and 20-plus seconds remaining on the shot clock. Still, he's Ray Allen. You live with those decisions.

The Sasha Pavlovic-Marquis Daniels tag team to replace Pierce didn't produce much scoring (four points) and Daniels missed a wide-open 3-pointer in the final 10 seconds. Neither had any luck defending Anthony. Daniels did have six rebounds and five assists, however. Bottom line: Pierce can't get back soon enough.

The silver lining to take out of this one was that Rondo was almost uniformly terrific (we'll overlook the five turnovers) in beginning a season in which his coach wants him to play exactly the way he did Sunday. Pierce should be back soon. Maybe even Mikeal Pietrus will help. They won't go 0-66 (but they could well go 0-2).

It might be hard to find a point guard who had a better day on Sunday than Rajon Rondo did. (That's pending, of course, Chris Paul's debut with the Clippers.) The Celtics can only hope this is the start of something even more special from their already pretty-special floor general.

Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.