Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo is in the midst of a historic assist streak that has put him in the same category as Magic Johnson and John Stockton. But Monday night at the United Center, it was Rondo’s early scoring that broke down the Bulls’ defense, and his passing late that sealed the victory.
Rondo tied a season-high with 20 points and handed out 10 assists -- the 31st straight game he has compiled 10 or more assists -- in the Celtics’ 101-95 win over the Bulls.
The Celtics’ lone point guard took advantage of a Bulls’ defense that desperately needed Kirk Hinrich, who missed the game with a strained hip. Rondo dominated his matchup with starter Nate Robinson, adding nine rebounds and five steals while posting a +/- of 15. In 30 minutes, Robinson was -15 in the same department.
Rondo looked the part of a franchise point guard Monday night, scoring when open, finding open players when needed and coming up with timely defensive stops on the other end.
“I think he's starting to really get comfortable with the players on the floor with what he can call, and you can see that coming on as well,” head coach Doc Rivers said.
Rondo is off to the best start of his seven-year NBA career, averaging career-highs in points and assists -- albeit in a small sample size -- that began during last year’s NBA Playoffs.
In the 24 games he handed out 10 or more assists to end 2011-2012, Rondo averaged 9.8 points on 9.5 field goal attempts per game. He scored in double figures in half of those games.
But in 2012-2013 Rondo has been even more aggressive, scoring double figures in all seven games while averaging 15.4 points on 12.7 field goal attempts per game.
“He's getting a lot more opportunities now that we don't have Ray Allen out there in the starting lineup,” Paul Pierce said. “Usually a lot of those shots would go to him, so he's just taking it upon himself to be more aggressive on the offensive end. His shot attempts are up, his scoring average is up and we need that. He's part of the Big Three now, so he's taken the lead and showing why he's the leader of this ball club.”
Rondo was part of the act that had the Celtics race out to an early lead and keep it for most of the first three quarters of the game. Rondo scored all 20 of his points by the start of the fourth, including three on jump shots that may have caught the Bulls off guard.
Pierce, who finished with a quiet 10 points on 4-of-8 shooting, said he’s happy to see Rondo enjoy offensive successes after putting in time to improve his game in the offseason.
“He works hard at his craft,” Pierce said. “He's developing nicely over the years and I feel like me and Kevin, being around here have been a part of that, seeing his growth as a player.”
Rondo’s growth as a scorer came in handy for the Celtics down the stretch, but it wasn’t the point guard doing the scoring.
After a surge by the Bulls to start the fourth quarter, the Celtics’ lead had been trimmed to four at 93-89 with less than three minutes to play when Rondo drove from the right wing to the left block and, instead of taking a shot, flipped an alley-oop to Kevin Garnett for a dunk.
Inside a minute to go, a Luol Deng layup cut the Celtics’ lead to two, 95-93, when Rondo and Garnett ran the same play out of a timeout to extend Boston’s lead with what would eventually be the game-winner.
Rondo attributed the success of those plays to his offensive game and keeping defenders, specifically center Joakim Noah, honest.
“It’s just me attacking the hole and trying to draw the big,” Rondo said. “Noah thought I would shoot it. He contested my shot both times, and I was actually passing it to Kevin and he went up and got it and threw it in.”
Rondo just barely got in his 10th assist to keep his record intact, finding Brandon Bass wide open underneath the basket with 23 seconds to play that sealed the game for the Celtics.
Rondo picked the perfect time to have his best game of the season, and as his offensive versatility improves, Pierce believes it will become even harder for opposing defenses to figure out which part of his game to stop.
“I consider him the best point guard in the league," Pierce said. "The things he's able to do out there, and when he's scoring the ball out there, you already know what he can do as far as passing and rebounding. He's just unstoppable.”