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The Ball's in His Hands

Forget about the Big Three. The Celtics' chances of gaining home court advantage in the East lie in the enormous mitts of Rajon Rondo, their mule-headed point guard

STUBBORNNESS CANbe a flaw for Rajon Rondo, but only on those occasions when it's not astrength. The Boston Celtics point guard is so mule-headed that he refused tobe drawn into the debate over whether he deserved one of the All-Starinvitations that went to Eastern Conference rivals Devin Harris, Jameer Nelsonand Mo Williams. "I'll take a championship over All-Star any day," hesaid again and again. For Rondo has more important matters on his mind; withKevin Garnett sidelined for the next two weeks with a strained right knee,Rondo will take on even more responsibility as Boston battles Williams'sCleveland Cavaliers for home court advantage throughout the Eastern Conferenceplayoffs.

"You've gotto have some stubbornness in you, that's what makes you great," saysCeltics coach Doc Rivers, a former All-Star point guard himself."But...."

But there aretimes when it is better to back off. Rondo has butted heads with every coach hehas had over the last decade. "Freshman year I benched him 13 games for onereason or another," says Doug Bibby, Rondo's coach at Eastern High inLouisville, who today considers Rondo one of his closest friends. In his twoyears at Kentucky, Rondo got along with coach Tubby Smith the way KeithOlbermann does with Bill O'Reilly, though it turned out to be nothing personal:As an up-tempo player Rondo felt restrained by Smith's half-court style. Nowthe two have a close friendship based on mutual respect.

"Last yearRondo got mad, and he said, 'Why are you always on me?'" recalls Rivers."And I said, 'Because you're not as good as you should be yet.' I told him,'Until that day I'm not getting off you, and I'm not going anywhere.'"

To win anyargument with Rondo, one must be equally obstinate. But then, disputes in theCeltics' locker room or huddle often lead to a more constructive understanding."The more you argue about something, the more prepared you'll be becauseyou'll say, 'Remember we talked about it the last game—that argument we gotin?'" says Celtics shooting guard Ray Allen. Rondo, 23, has had to meshwith Allen, the 7-foot Garnett and swingman Paul Pierce, All-Stars who are atleast eight years older than their slender playmaker. "I just think heworried about trying to match up with all of the hype that was surrounding uslast year," Allen adds, "so he had to show that he was the tough guy.Like, I'm tough, I know what I'm doing here. Now this year I think he feelsrespected, and he doesn't feel like he needs to pump his fist and beat hischest. Now that we know what he does, we give him his due."

Rondo has neverbeen intimidated by the Big Three, who earn a combined $61 million to the $1.3million he makes in the third and final year of his rookie contract. At6'1" and 171 pounds he is the smallest (and youngest) player in therotation, and at week's end he was scoring only 11.5 points per game. YetRondo, who in a 20-point win over the Phoenix Suns on Sunday had a career-high32 points and handed out 10 assists, has grown as important to the Celtics asany future Hall of Famer. Defensively he is a mini KG, especially in hisability to rebound (5.3 per game through Sunday, tying him with New OrleansHornets All-Star Chris Paul for the league lead among point guards) and to ballhawk (an average of 2.0 steals, which Rondo routinely turns into layups orassists at the other end).

"We thinkhe's the fastest player in the NBA," says Allen in lauding theindispensable energy that Rondo provides. His ability to beat any defender offthe dribble creates havoc, whether he is getting open looks for teammates orfinishing with reverse layups, floaters or his signature move—an upfake inwhich he teases shot blockers by showing the ball with one oversized handbefore yanking it back like a yo-yo on a string.

At week's endRondo was fourth in assists with 8.5 per game, and his assist-turnover ratio of3.2 was better than every All-Star's except Paul's (3.6). By any measure Rondohas surpassed expectations as a poor-shooting college sophomore who plummetedto No. 21 in the 2006 draft. After starting the latter half of his rookieseason for the 24-win Celtics, he was headstrong enough to believe he couldquarterback the team to a title last season after the acquisitions of Garnettand Allen. "It's just my competitive side," Rondo says. "If I'mstubborn, I want to make sure I know what I'm talking about."

Yet for all ofhis strong opinions, Rondo is a good listener with large, stoic eyes thatrarely reveal his feelings. Of all the strong personalities in the Celtics'locker room, his is among the least obtrusive. "When he first came into theleague, he introduced himself to me," Hornets coach Byron Scott says with alaugh. "I said, 'I know who you are.'"

RONDO HAScontrolled the ball in every sport he ever played. "I was a pitcher, andgrowing up I thought I was going to the NFL," says Rondo, who was aquarterback with a 55-yard arm before he chose to focus full time on basketballafter his freshman year of high school. "[Playing QB] definitely translatedto the basketball court, knowing where everyone has to be on assignment. Comingto the line you see different defenses, and you've got to audible quickly withthe play clock going down."

Kentucky'swalk-it-up pace exposed Rondo's weakness as a spot-up shooter. While he led theWildcats in rebounds, steals and assists as a sophomore, he made only 68 of 119free throws (57.2%) and 18 of 66 three-pointers (27.3%)—numbers that sent hisstock plummeting and enabled Boston to steal him in a draft-night trade withthe Suns. Even now as he prepares to shoot, Rondo looks like a waiter carryinga tray of food, with his large right palm flat above his right ear. ThroughSunday he led all point guards in shooting (50.6%), though more than two thirdsof his attempts had been layups and he was making just 30.3% of his threes."He's not a great shooter, but he knows how to hide himself," saysPortland Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan. "Avery Johnson wasn't a greatshooter either, but he knew how to go behind that basket and put himself inposition to hurt you if you double-teamed off him. If Rondo was knocking downhis jump shot consistently, you'd be talking about an all-pro player."

Rondo is oftencompared with Tony Parker, another late-first-round pick, who guided the SanAntonio Spurs to the 2003 championship even though he lacked a reliable jumper.Whereas Parker overhauled his technique and has developed into a long-rangemarksman, Rondo intends to change nothing. "I'm set in my ways," saysRondo, who believes his accuracy will improve with practice. "I don't feellike I have to settle for a jump shot, because I can get to the basket atwill."

Both the SeattleSonics and the Minnesota Timberwolves threatened to call off their blockbustertrades of Allen and Garnett, respectively, so badly did both want Rondo (beforeCeltics president Danny Ainge called their bluffs). Even so, his elder All-Starteammates were skeptical that a second-year point guard could help lead them toa championship. After roller-coastering through last year's playoff run—hisspectacular title-clinching performance (21 points, eight assists and sixsteals) in Game 6 against the Los Angeles Lakers came after a combined 16points and nine assists in the previous three games—Rondo is learning how tolisten. He has become a more consistent source of energy by heeding Rivers'sdemands to push the ball across half court as well as pick it up full-court ondefense. Heart-to-hearts with his more famous teammates have helped himunderstand where they like the ball.

Softening hisstubborn side is all part of growing up in a championship environment, Rondoacknowledges. "I've learned to handle it a little bit better," he says."Even though I think I'm right."

"We think he's the FASTEST PLAYER IN THE NBA,"says Allen in lauding the indispensable energy that Rondo provides.



See where Rajon Rondo and the defending NBA champions stand in Chris Mannix'spower rankings.


LeBron's Righthand Man

The Cavs found the perfect complement for their starwhen they dealt for Mo Williams last summer

THE CAVALIERS were among the busiest window-shoppersat the NBA trade deadline last Thursday, investigating potential deals foreveryone from Richard Jefferson to Marcus Camby to Shaquille O'Neal. But theCavs felt comfortable standing pat because they had already made the mostbeneficial move of their season, acquiring point guard Mo Williams fromMilwaukee in a three-team trade last summer.

Over his first five seasons, with the Jazz and theBucks, the 6'1" Williams was often dismissed as a shoot-first point guard,but that was exactly what Cleveland was seeking to space the floor for LeBronJames. At week's end the Cavs (43--11) were on pace to win 19 more games thanthey did a season ago largely because Williams was averaging a career-best 17.6points to go with his 4.2 assists, emerging as a solid No. 2 in both categoriesto James.

As a result, Williams earned his first invitation tothe All-Star Game (albeit as an injury replacement for Jameer Nelson of theMagic), where he looked entirely comfortable amid the more familiar names,making five of 10 shots for 12 points in 17 minutes. "It doesn't seem likeanything fazes him," says Cavaliers coach Mike Brown. Says the 26-year-oldWilliams, "What I play for is the big stage. I love the moment when all thepressure is on you."

Williams draws strength from having taken an uphilljourney to stardom. After averaging 16.4 points as a sophomore at Alabama, heexpected to be a top 15 pick in the 2003 draft. When he plummeted to the secondround (No. 47 overall) he played his way onto the Utah roster in training campand earned the respect of coach Jerry Sloan with hard work each day atpractice. The following year the Bucks signed him to a three-year, $5.4 millionfree-agent contract; then, based largely on his accuracy from beyond thearc—he's a career 37.1% three-point shooter—they re-signed him to a six-year,$52 million deal in 2007.

Before Nelson suffered a season-ending shoulder injuryon Feb. 2, a rivalry was developing among the point guards of the East's threeleading contenders. Nelson, Williams and Rajon Rondo of the Celtics all enteredthe league as undersized and undervalued draft picks, and each has created animportant leadership role in a relatively short time. "All three are toughenough to defend the bigger point guards and not be taken advantage of on theblock," says Brown. "People questioned Mo's toughness in Milwaukee, butthey forget that Jerry Sloan is not going to have anybody who is not tough, andat Alabama, Mo was known as a defender. Their toughness is what makes thoseguys special."

The importance of point guard leadership wasunderscored when Orlando made one of the few meaningful moves at the tradedeadline, acquiring Rafer Alston from the Rockets to serve as Nelson'sshort-term replacement. After suffering embarrassing losses to Indiana, Denverand New Orleans, the Magic worked with the Rockets and the Grizzlies to landAlston, giving up big men Brian Cook and Adonal Foyle along with a first-rounddraft choice in separate deals.

Alston should fit right in with his Eastern peers: Hehas had a distinguished career with five teams after dropping to the secondround of the 1998 draft. A self-made NBA point guard is well-equipped to becomea team leader with backbone, asserts Williams. "I look back at my draftclass and the players [picked ahead of me] and what they're doing now and whatI'm doing," he says. "Yeah, I laugh."


Photograph by Damian Strohmeyer

PRESSURE POINT Rondo will assume a more prominent role in Boston's offense while Garnett (above) is on the mend.



[See caption above]



HARD DRIVE Rondo doesn't worry about his often spotty jump shot because, as he puts it, "I can get to the basket at will."



MO BETTER Williams's shoot-first style at the point has suited Cleveland, which is 19 wins ahead of last year's pace.