Rajon Rondo is officially the missing link in Boston.
Up until the NBA playoffs, I was convinced the Boston Celtics weren't any worse off without Rondo. If anything, they were better. He was a ball-dominator with Rucker Park styling who really didn't help the offense as much as he was supposed to. The Ewing Theory had arrived in Beantown.
My hunch wasn't out of any misplaced hate for the point guard. I still consider him to be a tad overrated, I must admit. Far too often, he appears disinterested during games, as if the ones not nationally televised aren't worth playing. And at what point do we stop referring to his jump shot as "developing" and call it was it is—crap.
These aren't unfounded accusations, either. Per HoopData.com, Rondo converted just 41 percent of his shots outside of nine feet before going down with an ACL injury. That's not good. Or even close to good.
And the stats supported it. Specifically on offense, where Rondo was supposed to have the greatest impact. The Celtics have actually scored more points per 100 possessions (104.6) without him this year than they have with him (100.9).
That troubles me. And so did everything else about the correlations between Boston's offense with and without him.
Before Rondo went down, the Celtics were 20-23. They averaged 95 points and 23 assists per game on 45.7-percent shooting from the floor overall, and 33.5 percent from beyond the arc. They were also committing 14 turnovers a night.
Through the last 38 games of the season without their point guard, the Celtics went 21-17. They averaged 98.2 points and 22.4 assists per night on 47.3-percent shooting from the field, and 38.2 percent from deep. Their number of turnovers dropped to 13.8 as well.
None of that sat well with me. To be honest, it still doesn't. Point guards are supposed to have a profound impact on the offense. Rondo didn't. Or he didn't appear to.
But then when I watched the Celtics open up their first-round series against the New York Knicks, I understood. My belief that floor generals must have a profound impact on their teammates goes beyond the numbers. Esoteric purposes can't always be measured in the box score. That's not their nature.
Rondo wouldn't necessarily have prevented the Celtics from committing 20 turnovers in Game 1 (he's a bit turnover prone himself), but there are things he does for his teammates, floor-spacing maneuvers that could have helped Boston exceed 78 points or shoot better than 41.5 percent from the floor. He does things to defenses that could have helped the Celtics score more.
Boston shot 5-of-20 from beyond the arc in Game 1, a horrific number. But it was a necessary one. Without Rondo, points in the paint are hard to come by. The Celtics finished with just 30. On the year, they ranked 27th with 37.8.
Now, a lack of size doesn't help Boston, and Rondo can be a shot-clock killer, but the offensive dynamic completely changes with him on the floor.
When Rondo is in the game, the Celtics like to spread the floor to open up the path to the basket for him, as you can see below:
He's extremely dangerous when he gets into the paint and can create opportunities for open shooters on the wing with his precise passes. In fear of just this, the Chicago Bulls extend their defense out of the paint completely, in an attempt to cut Rondo off early.
To counteract this, Courtney Lee runs a screen for Paul Pierce:
The path to the basket is still wide open, so there's no help defense to contest Pierce once Luol Deng gets hit with the screen:
Rondo was able to find him with the pass for an easy two:
Moving on to a particular set against the Charlotte Bobcats, the Celtics elect to do the same thing by crowding the perimeter:
This time, they aren't as jumbled together, making a screen less likely. Instead, you can bet on Rondo using that space to attack. Which he does:
Once he gets inside the paint, the Bobcats will converge on him:
As you can see, Lee is streaking toward the basket from the left corner:
Rondo, of course, sees him and hits him with the rock for a reverse layup:
Sans their point guard, the Celtics don't have this luxury. Defenses adjust and will cheat toward the paint a bit more, because they know that neither Pierce nor Avery Bradley, or anyone else on the Celtics, can attack the way Rondo can.
Take Game 1 against the Knicks:
New York appears to leave the paint just as unattended as ever when Pierce begins to attack. If you look closely, though, you'll see that Kenyon Martin, Jason Kidd and Carmelo Anthony are already cheating toward the paint.
Knowing that Pierce lives on the perimeter more than Rondo does, the Knicks decide to put themselves in position for the rebound. They assume that there's no need to stop The Truth on the outside, because he won't try to get to the rim. And he doesn't:
He settles for a jumper:
Now, Pierce hits the jump shot, but the blueprint has been set. Notice how both Brandon Bass and Jeff Green are in no-man's land:
Later on, we see much of the same. The Knicks position themselves where it would be far too late to cut off the drive, because they don't expect Pierce to drive:
They even neglect Lee and Green; the primary focus is again grabbing the rebound off a missed jumper. They trust that 'Melo and Kidd will close out on either one of them. And if not, an open shot from long range is something they'll give to the Celtics.
Lee eventually slashes to the basket, but to no avail:
Why? Because Kidd and J.R. Smith have put themselves in a spot where they can intercept any pass Pierce throws.
'Melo is also still right where he was to start the set, leaving Pierce to believe that he can reach Green. The problem? Neither Pierce nor Green has come any closer to each other. The distance between the two isn't conducive to an effective pass, leaving Anthony free to recover late and intercept it:
Which he does:
These are the problems Boston's offense is facing without Rondo.
Too many isolation plays and a lack of dribble penetration free the defense up to take chances, to plan for rebounds and to break up any passes. Without Rondo, they're more predictable.
This is nothing against Pierce, who has done an admirable job running the offense in Rondo's stead. And as we mentioned earlier, the Celtics are averaging more points without him on the floor.
But Pierce doesn't attack the rim as much or effectively as Rondo. When he does, he's not looking to defer as frequently. This is an element of unpredictability the Celtics lack right now. It's also one they need over the course of a series where defenses have the opportunity to adjust.
When Rondo's in the game, he does have a tendency to handle the ball too much, but he's constantly moving. It's not like he's isolating himself. He's looking for seams in the defense, ways to attack the rim or feign penetration so he can hit the open cutter or shooter.
He's varying his methods of attack.
That's what the Celtics need. That's what they currently lack. That's what's killing their offense against the Knicks.
And that's what ultimately stands to prevent them from moving beyond the first round.
*All stats in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted.