BOSTON - A day that began with Linsanity ended with no question as to the best point guard on the floor. That honor went to the Boston Celtics' oft-maligned All-Star, Rajon Rondo, who delivered one of the most versatile performances in modern NBA history to help the Celtics hold off the pesky New York Knicks in overtime, 115-111.
At one point, it looked like Jeremy Lin might finally have his Tim Tebow moment. The comparison between the two media darlings has overlooked the fact that Lin's performance has typically been strong for all four quarters, though often capped by late-game heroics. This performance looked more like Tebow pulling off a miraculous finish following three forgettable periods.
Early foul trouble tethered Lin to the bench for most of the first quarter, and when he did get back on the court in the second period, his turnover bug reared its ugly head. Four Lin miscues helped keep the Knicks from increasing their halftime lead. Though Lin was still quiet in the second half, New York's bench stayed in the game, giving Lin the opportunity for some crunch-time heroics. He followed a turnover/steal/layup combination that was pure hustle with a triple from the corner to bring the Knicks within one.
Then, Lin deferred to Carmelo Anthony, who put New York on top with a score with 35 seconds remaining. The shot looked like the game winner until Paul Pierce made the day's biggest play, an off-balance, contested three-pointer to tie the game with 4.9 seconds left to play. When Anthony missed at the buzzer, a relieved TD Garden crowd celebrated overtime.
Once there, it was all Rondo and Pierce. The Knicks got enough buckets to hang around into the final minute, but New York was unable to get enough stops to win the game.
This was a quintessentially uneven offensive performance by the Celtics, who alternated stretches of efficient, unselfish play with long scoring droughts. Not coincidentally, the latter often featured the team's weak bench matching up against the Knicks' suddenly strong second unit. When Boston was going well, Rondo was the catalyst. It was about this time that his shooting slump was the talk of Beantown, as well as his disappointment that the Celtics had traded friend Kendrick Perkins. This time around, Rondo has responded to renewed trade rumors with some of his best basketball.
In Friday's easy win over New Jersey, Rondo had 14 points and 13 assists, but made the biggest difference at the defense end. He racked up five steals as Boston's 2-2-1 zone press forced the Nets into turnover after turnover in the second quarter. Sunday was the complete Rondo. He kept penetrating the paint off the pick-and-roll and breaking down the New York defense, drawing help and then dishing off to teammates either at the rim or beyond the arc.
Rondo's 20-assist game was the most any player has handed out this season. Yet that wasn't the most remarkable aspect of his performance. That was instead Rondo's full stat line. He also scored 18 points, though not in particularly efficient fashion (he shot 7-of-20 from the field) and was a major factor on the glass, pulling down a career-high 17 rebounds. That kind of well-rounded performance has little precedent in recent NBA history. Over the 26 seasons covered by Basketball-Reference.com's database, just three other players--Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Jason Kidd--have had at least 15 points, rebounds and assists in a game. Johnson, on April 18, 1989 against the Denver Nuggets, was the only one before Rondo to reach at least 17 in all three categories.
(Note that such games were surely common in the '60s among players like Wilt Chamberlain, who had the league's lone double-triple-double (22 points, 25 rebounds and 21 assists) and Oscar Robertson. However, as we explored in looking back on Chamberlain's 61-62 campaign on Friday, those numbers were compiled in a league that played at a far faster pace than today's NBA.)
The notion that the Celtics are "aggressively shopping" Rondo are dubious at best, but Sunday's game showed why he would be difficult to part with for anything but an elite talent. When playing at full potential, Rondo can control the game like few others in the NBA, and do so without needing to take 30 shots. Certainly, Rondo can be frustrating, but he's one of the five best point guards in the NBA and such players rarely come on the market unless they're about to reach free agency. (It's also worth remembering that Rondo has one of the league's best non-rookie contracts, as his extension through the 2014-15 season has proven a bargain.)
As for Lin, now that the hype is past we can see him for what he is--a point guard in development with immense potential but also challenges. Even in a dreadful game, Lin made a handful of jaw-dropping plays to get to the basket, like splitting two big men in the paint to drop a pass for a layup. Right now, Lin's biggest challenge is something Rondo has more or less mastered--using his quickness to his advantage while still playing at a controlled pace. Lin's turnovers were mostly due to getting himself in trouble by penetrating into traffic without a plan. (He also had a couple of overly ambitious passes ahead in transition that ended up either out of bounds or in Boston's hands.)
What Sunday's game did reinforce is that the second unit isn't getting enough credit for its role in New York's recent success. The starting lineup of Lin, Landry Fields, Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler had played almost exactly even before Sunday, outscoring opponents by one point in 52 minutes. A negative adjusted plus-minus score suggests that has come despite facing below-average opposition.
By contrast, the best net plus-minus ratings on the team belong to the reserves who have only played since Lin's arrival, guards J.R. Smith (+21.8) and Baron Davis (+16.0), with Steve Novak (+14.4) not far behind. Lin has been relatively more effective with these players than the Knicks' starting lineup. In this compact season, Mike D'Antoni's ability to go 10 deep when healthy figures to give New York an edge down the stretch in the battle for playoff positioning.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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