BOSTON – Brad Stevens had yet to get an up-close view of peak Rajon Rondo, who missed most of last season with a torn ACL that still slowed him during his second-half return and then broke his hand before training camp this season.
When the second-year Celtics coach finally saw that version of his star point guard, Stevens didn’t believe it.
“He absolutely destroyed our team on Friday in practice,” Stevens said. “And I thought it was really great until I watched film, and then I thought our team stunk as far as in that practice.
On a night the Bucks led the Hornets by 24 (before Kemba Walker happened and happened) and the Timberwolves pushed the Grizzlies, the Celtics are the only one of last year’s lottery teams to beat an opponent that made the playoffs a season ago. And they did it in resounding fashion, hammering the Nets, 121-105.
Rondo – who worked his way up from 79 percent to 83 percent in the days prior – finished with 13 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds.
“Rondo was classic,” said Nets forward Kevin Garnett, who won a championship with Rondo in Boston. “I don’t where he said he was at – 89, 83 percent? Hell of an 83 percent.”
“91,” Rondo said.
As interesting as it is to pinpoint Rondo’s EXACT progress, it’s worthwhile to take a step back and see what his performance means for Boston – and Brooklyn.
Since the NBA went to a 16-team postseason in 1984, 12 teams that had missed the playoffs the year before beat a team that had made it by at least 15 points in the following season opener. Half the winners reached the postseason that season, but 75 percent of the losers did.
So, Boston could easily fade back toward preseason expectations. But for one night, dominance sure was fun.
Even Rondo – notoriously competitive – nearly cracked a grin as he chewed on his mouth guard after making a 3-pointer that put the Celtics up 24 midway through the third quarter.
“I called bank on the 3,” Rondo said.
Few called this result, through – not even the Boston fans who gave Garnett a rousing pregame ovation and chanted “KG! KG! KG!” after he picked up a technical foul. This team just looked too similar to last year’s squad, which which went 25-57 and snapped a six-season postseason streak.
But a healthy Rondo can change a lot.
The Nets were missing Brook Lopez, and his return should help. But enough to turn Brooklyn’s fortunes?
“We have some work to do,” Garnett said. “It’s apparent.”
Appearances can be tricky, though.
Even when it was apparent to Stevens he had a vintage Rondo, the coach couldn’t shake last year’s home opener, when Boston led the Bucks by 22 before losing.
“I wasn’t really focused on all that was going well,” Stevens said. “I was focused on all that could possibly go wrong,”
A lot could still go wrong for the Celtics, who few projected for the postseason. And a lot could still go right for the Nets, who most have inside the playoff bubble.
Anyone who reads too much into a single game is making a big mistake. But this result, especially Rondo’s excellence, should at least make you give the Celtics a second look.