The runaway NBA leader in 20-20 games is Dwight Howard. The runaway leader in triple-doubles is Rajon Rondo. And since the All-Star Game, they have been the runaway leaders in trade rumors.
But while Howard’s name will remain at the head of the list, Rondo took a huge step Sunday toward taking his name out of sourced stories.
Last week, Rondo reportedly was headed to Golden State for Stephen Curry before Celtics president Danny Ainge said it was highly unlikely his All-Star point guard would be traded before the deadline – which, of course, had everyone believing Rondo almost certainly woudl dealt.
Now? Well, would you trade a player whose latest performance put him in a club with Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson and no one else? His 18 points, 17 rebounds and 20 assists made him just the third player in NBA history with a 15-15-20 triple-double.
He did it against the rival New York Knicks. He did it while being guarded by Jeremy Lin, whose phenomenon is starting to look more like fad than fashion. And he did it on national TV, for everyone to see.
From Tim Smith of the New York Daily News: “This is Lin’s life in the NBA now. Everyone is going to come at him, which will put a premium on Anthony being truer when he pulls the trigger, especially down the stretch in crucial moments. And every point guard is going to rise to the challenge to bring some sanity to Linsanity. And so it was with Rondo, who had been the subject of trade rumors last week but punished the Knicks with 18 points, 20 assists and 17 rebounds. “He’s one of the best in the league,” Lin said. “You saw his stat line tonight. There aren’t many guards, maybe no guard, who can put up something like that. We didn’t do a good job of containing him and he obviously controlled the tempo of the game.” That was the type of freewheeling game that Lin used to have before the league put a target on his back. Now every team is extra motivated to stop him.
From Jackie MacMullan of ESPNBoston.com: “Was there any doubt Rajon Rondo would show up for this one? The recipe was ripe for one of those “Hey, watch me!” statements from Boston’s curious and compelling point guard, who is consistent in one regard only: He’s maddeningly inconsistent, alternately the most electrifying and vexing and exhilarating player on the Celtics’ roster, maybe even in the league. Rondo likes the big games — always has. Sunday’s matchup against the New York Knicks had all sorts of ramifications in the division and overall playoff seeding (the Knicks, like the Celtics, are vying to elevate themselves to the sixth spot, so as to avoid either Miami or Chicago in the first round). Against that backdrop, as well as a raucous, all-in TD Garden crowd, Rondo dropped three-ring circus numbers on the Knicks in a 115-111 overtime win: 18 points, 20 assists and 17 rebounds. That’s right, 20 assists — Earvin “Magic” Johnson numbers. And 17 rebounds — Larry Bird-type stats. It was the 17th triple-double of Rondo’s career (including playoffs), and I’m guessing it will not stun you to learn that 13 of them, including Sunday’s game, were broadcast on national television. So here were the ingredients for his latest salvo in the “you don’t respect me enough” war that he so often wages against himself. There was the national stage, the division opponent, the latest trade whispers and, of course, the point guard in the other locker room, Jeremy Lin, the league’s newest and brightest sensation. Rondo feigned indifference about New York’s latest sports icon, but we know better. So do his teammates. Kevin Garnett made a mental note of Rondo’s resolve when the notoriously tardy Celtic was the first or second player to arrive before the game. “If you know Rondo, you know he’s an ‘I’ll show you’ kind of player,” Garnett observed. “This game had enough juice on it to be the kind he’s interested in.”
Rondo’s interest in games with less “juice” is part of the reason his name has been in trade rumors. Despite his frequent moments of incandescent brilliance, there is still an inconsistency to his game – and often an accompanying sourpuss attitude – that prevents him from remaining untouchable.
But there is no denying that Sunday’s game had enough juice to fire up any player, and the result was a gift to NBA fans across the country. And the result put the Celtics a neck in front of the Knicks in the playoff race – and that much closer to the horse in front of them.
From Mark Murphy of the Boston Herald: “The Celtics have taken a 2-1 season series lead over New York. They play again on April 17 in New York, but in a season where playoff jockeying is a full-time worry, this win could make a difference at the end of the season. The Celtics, at 19-17, pushed the 18-19 Knicks back under .500. “That was big, that was talked about,” Doc Rivers said of the Cs’ head-to-head race with New York. “I’ve been thinking about that since Day 1, but we all are now. It could be for a tiebreaker. This is a team that’s trying to move in front of you, get into (playoff) position, you never know. The biggest thing is that (the Knicks) are getting confidence, and I don’t want that to go against us. It was very important. (The Knicks) haven’t had it, ever, and that’s why it was very important for us to win this game.” That may be why D’Antoni was in such a dour state.”
In addition to an edge in the standings, the Celtics definitely hold a psychological edge over the Knicks, who have lost their last 11 visits to Boston and were swept out of the playoffs by Mean Green a year ago.
From Howard Beck of the New York Times: “In the 30 days that passed between trips to New England, the Knicks added players, momentum, confidence, a bench and a global sensation, raising their profile and their expectations to unwieldy heights. It took the Boston Celtics just five minutes to puncture the hype balloon and present a healthy reminder of the distances the Knicks still must travel to consider themselves contenders. On a raucous afternoon at TD Garden, the Celtics muted Jeremy Lin, withstood Carmelo Anthony and — as they have so often done — converted the most critical plays.”
And from Al Iannazzone of Newsday: “The Knicks have the younger team, the new and improved bench and the hot point guard. But they still don’t have enough to beat the Celtics in Boston. Harvard graduate Jeremy Lin was back in Boston Sunday and was schooled by Rajon Rondo. The Knicks still had plenty of chances to win this playoff-type game and make a statement that they can be a real contender. Instead, they coughed up those opportunities and lost for the 11th straight time in Boston, falling 115-111 in overtime. “They’ve won championships before,” Amar’e Stoudemire said. “They understand how to close out quarters and close out games. That’s something we’ve got to take a page out of their book and apply it to our team.”
The recent free falls by Milwauke and Cleveland have pretty much defined the Eastern Conference playoff field. Currently, the Knicks are eighth, 1 1/2 games behind the Celtics, who are 2 1/2 games behind the sixth-place Atlanta Hawks (22-15).
And while the sixth seed is the safe zone to avoid a first-round matchup with either Chicago or Miami, the fourth seed also is highly realistic, because it is occupied by the sputtering Philadelphia 76ers, who lead the weak Atlantic Division.
The Sixers fell to 22-16 with Sunday’s 96-91 home loss to the Chicago Bulls. They have a worse record than both Atlanta and Orlando (24-14), who have the misfortune of sharing the Southeast Division with Miami. And they are just one game in the loss column ahead of Boston after another narrow loss, which is becoming a nasty habit.
From John Smallwood of the Philadelphia Daily News: “Nothing was new. What happened to the Sixers last night was virtually the same thing that’s happened almost every time they have come up against a top team with All-Star-caliber players.The talent gap is just too wide to bridge. Superstar, go-to guy, shot-maker, whatever you want to call it, the other team has it and the Sixers don’t. The Sixers can make runs. They can fight back. They can make it close. But in the end, it almost always ends up in a heartbreaking loss. Last night it was reigning NBA Most Valuable Player Derrick Rose who provided the star-envy for Sixers fans as the Chicago Bulls pulled out a 96-91 victory at the Wells Fargo Center. Rose matched his season high with 35 points and nailed buzzer-beating jumpers to end the second and third quarters. With the Sixers trying to rally in the closing moments, Rose zipped to the basket and made a running jumper, putting the Bulls up, 93-89, with 20.9 seconds remaining.”
The Sixers are 4-9 since an 18-7 start. Much has been made of their record with (12-2) and without (10-14) injured center Spencer Hawes. More should be made of their record against winning teams (5-12) and losing teams (17-4).
This week’s schedule should have a significant impact on the top of the Atlantic Division. On Wednesday, the Sixers host Boston. On Sunday, they visit New York, which will be returning from road games vs. Dallas, San Antonio and Milwaukee. That same day, the Celtics begin a monstrous eight-game road trip that ends March 23 - back in Philadelphia.
A minor aside to Bulls-Sixers: Philadelphia cut an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit to two by trapping Derrick Rose with a double-team and forcing the ball out of his hands. It created a series of rushed shots and bad decisions by Chicago’s other players until Rose made a spectacular running shot in which he drove left, rose off his right foot, floated toward the short corner, pivoted his body in mid-air and threw in a right-handed floater that had Sixers players on the bench shaking their heads.
It was an interesting defensive approach, one that opponents certainly should consider in their next matchup with the Bulls. It also might have been a good strategy for the Charlotte Bobcats, who seemed perfectly content in allowing Deron Williams to look like Michael Jordan – who just happens to be the guy signing their checks.
From Fred Kerber of the New York Post: “Deron Williams gets to keep his 11:39 tee time today in South Florida. That’s because the Nets won. And that’s because no Net in the NBA history of the franchise ever scored more points in a game than the career-high 57 Williams delivered last night in a 104-101 victory over the hapless Bobcats. “Coach said we’d have tomorrow off and I had an 11:39 tee time, so I had to make it. He said we’d have off if we won,” said Williams, who shot 16-of-29 from the floor, 21-of-21 from the line, an effort wading in urgency because of a new injury to center Brook Lopez (ankle). “So I wanted to contribute.” Safe to say he did a little more than that.”
Williams surpassed the 51 dropped by Kevin Durant as the highest-scoring game in the NBA this season. He now has the best individual games in two leagues, having scored 50 for Besiktas in Turkey before returning to the NBA when the lockout was resolved. The way the Bobcats defended him might have made this outburst easier.
From Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer: “To his surprise, the Bobcats did little to force the ball out of his hands. “I’m used to getting double-teamed on pick-and-roll,” Williams said. “Refreshing not to.” The Bobcats tried to defend Williams with point guards D.J. Augustin and Kemba Walker until midway through the third quarter. Augustin committed four fouls in his first 15 minutes. Finally, Silas turned to shooting guard Gerald Henderson to put a bigger cover on the 6-3, 209-pound Williams. By then, it was too late; Williams had 22 points in the third quarter alone to give the Nets their first lead. “We tried some blitzing (trapping the ball out of Williams’ hands), but they have guys who can shoot, so you can’t do that too much,” said Augustin.”People don’t realize how strong he is and he’s really quick for his size.”
If anyone was wondering why Howard would be willing to be traded to the Nets, now you know.
- My editor-in-chief may be among the readers wondering where are the takeouts on the Heat-Lakers game. As much as the media will try, there’s no pot to stir here. The Heat were on the road, minus Chris Bosh for the whole game and Dwyane Wade for the final five minutes after he fouled out. LeBron James made 12-of-26 shots; Wade made 7-of-17 before his exit: and their teammates made 14-of-44 in a 93-83 loss to the Lakers, who will put way too much stock in winning a game at home, the only place where they have won this season. So there.
- The Lakers remain percentage points behind the Clippers, who squeezed out a 105-103 overtime win at Houston. Chris Paul, who is closing the gap on James in the MVP race, had 28 points, 10 assists and all the winning plays down the stretch.
- The Spurs welcomed back Manu Ginobili – and continued their post All-Star malaise with a 99-94 home loss to the shorthanded Nuggets, who got 22 points, 11 assists and a clutch late jumper from Ty Lawson. Ginobili had eight points in 24 minutes for the Spurs, who are 1-2 since the break despite being in a stretch of schedule that calls for no back-to-back games until March 16-17.
- If you still consider Minnesota, Portland and Utah to be in the Western Conference playoff picture, then you also have to include the Phoenix Suns, who trail that trio by one game in the loss column after a 96-88 home win over Sacramento. Phoenix 3-0 since the break and has won five of six overall heading into Wednesday’s game at Oklahoma City.
- Finally, my editor-in-chief may also want to reconsider his opinion of the Golden State Warriors, whom he said had a chance to go 5-0 on their road trip. They fell to 1-3 with an 83-75 loss to Toronto and – hampered by the absence of injured Stephen Curry – have yet to eclipse 83 points on their trek, which ends tonight in Washington.