BOSTON – Rajon Rondo exited the visitors’ locker room and immediately laid eyes on the large amount of media filling the hallway interviewing Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle about the former Celtics point guard.
“Oh s***, Dirk,” Rondo said.
“This looks aggressive,” Dirk Nowitzki said, following Rondo from the locker room.
Whatever aggressiveness, reporters showed in covering Rondo’s return to Boston after being traded to Dallas, he topped it several times over once the game began. Rondo scored the Mavericks’ first 10 points and finished with 29, his most in two seasons, in Dallas’ 119-101 win Friday.
And Celtics fans matched his enthusiasm. After Rondo played into their worst complaints about him by admitting he hadn’t played defense the last two years, they showed their best appreciation by giving him a standing ovation following a rousing first-half video tribute.
Rondo waived to the crowd and looked toward the lights as players from both teams clapped along.
By the time he reached the post-game press conference, Rondo was no longer stunned by the attention. When he saw a room full of reporters, didn’t look surprised. He just gladly accepted the bottle of water a Mavericks staffer offered him and went to the microphone.
“I’m emotionally tired. I’m physically tired,” Rondo said. “I’m drained right now, and it was a tough game to get through.”
Not too tough.
Dallas cruised behind Rondo’s career-high five 3-pointers on seven attempts. Never known for his outside shooting, Rondo faced a defense that, as Celtics forward Jared Sullinger put it, “baited him to shoot and wanted him to shoot.”
So, Rondo shot. And shot and shot. He made his first seven field-goal attempts, including four from beyond the arc.
“He’s a big-game player. That kid is amazing,” Dallas center Tyson Chandler said. “…He lives for moments like this.”
It’s been a while since Rondo had a big game in Boston. The Celtics traded Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce before last season, starting a rebuilding process that saw Rondo – a four-time All-Star whose top skill is creating for others – share the floor with teammates who couldn’t capitalize on those opportunities.
That wasn’t always easy for Rondo. The 2007-08 Celtics are the only of the last 10 NBA champions without a player still on the team. Until the trade to Dallas, it had been on Rondo to hold down that legacy in Boston. Alone.
With the Mavericks, he’s hardly on his own. Dallas features former champions Dirk Nowitzki and Chandler and up-and-comers Chandler Parsons and Monta Ellis. Once again, Rondo has teammates who make the most of playing with him.
The process of Rondo developing chemistry with this new group is ongoing, but if his jumper is falling like this…
“It makes us unstoppable,” Chandler said.
And if this was an aberration, special performance on a special night, nobody in Dallas is worried about the fit.
“Rondo can figure out any puzzle,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said.
He figured out how to play with Garnett and Pierce on a contender. He figured out how to remain productive on lesser teams. And he figured out how to get through this homecoming without crying.
Bigger challenges lie ahead for Rondo with Dallas, challenges with championship implications. This is the venture he wanted, even if meant leaving behind the only professional team he’d known.
Rondo thrived in Boston, embracing the city and winning a championship. This is where he grew up in the NBA, where he learned from Garnett and Pierce, where he developed his own style of cockiness.
What would he have said if told, during his rookie year, that he would leave Boston with the accolades that warrant a video tribute and hero’s celebration upon his return?
“Sounds about right,” Rondo said.
Rajon Rondo is no longer a Celtic, but he sure is still Rajon Rondo – and that’s why Boston fans were so happy to see him tonight, one last time for a while.