By Ben Golliver
The Celtics didn't want to change Rondo when he arrived, but they didn't want to hide him either. So at charity functions he perched behind a folding table where he could avoid the back-slapping, baby-hugging and other standard forms of celebrity fakery. He just played Connect Four, against anybody who dared, usually two grids at a time and sometimes three. "This has been going on for six years," Matt Meyersohn, the Celtics' director of community relations, said on Dec. 22 during an event at the Blue Hill Boys & Girls Club in Dorchester, Mass. "He's played hundreds of Connect Four games, maybe a thousand. And he's never lost."
Later that day Rondo sat behind a table and three grids. Across from him were more than 100 children he had showered with bikes, Razor scooters and iPod Touches that he bought at Target and distributed from the back of a U-Haul. "I thought he might let us win," said a 12-year-old named Olisa. "But he was so serious." Rondo wore the requisite Santa hat with jolly red shoes, but through 22 consecutive victories he barely uttered a word or cracked a smile. He held each disk aloft for a solid 10 seconds before depositing it in his chosen column. He stared the kids down as if they were Knicks.
Olisa was the last challenger. He stared back at Rondo through wire-rimmed glasses. He clenched teeth covered with braces. He initiated what he called a trap, forcing Rondo to the right side of the grid, putting him on the defensive. When Olisa dropped the winning disk, Celtics officials started to shout. Meyersohn grabbed the microphone. "This has never happened!" he bellowed. Olisa rushed around the table to take a picture with the shell-shocked champion, who tried to curl up a corner of his mouth for the camera but instead bowed his head, resulting in a snapshot of his scalp.
Two hours later, hopped up on grenadine over lunch at a sushi restaurant in Boston's Back Bay, Rondo looked as if he were still digesting a piece of bad shrimp tempura. "I can't believe it," he said. "But did you notice I played the guy five more times and won them all? I had to show him, 'You beat me, but I'll beat the s--- out of you.'"
If smoke could have billowed from his ears at that moment, it would have. As the broadcast went to a commercial break, we saw Duncan walking to the bench, arms extended gently from his sides in the universal symbol for "Huh?" Pop looked back and affixed Duncan with the fiercest of death-stares, the slow-burn look he normally reserves for sideline reporters. Pop was clearly furious at his superstar, for some unclear transgression. And just as a showdown seemed imminent, the Spurs turned their backs to the cameras and huddled, and we saw ads for Denny's, Heineken, ESPN's coverage of the Daytona 500, Ford, and "The Book of Mormon" on Broadway.
I've been thinking about this and re-watching it ever since it happened, and I can't get it out of my mind. To me, the lesson wasn't about the cause but the effect. Whatever made Pop livid was not some obvious, major breakdown. Maybe it was the way they switched a pick or the pace with which they had picked up their defensive assignments. Whatever it was, it was amazing to see an NBA coach light into his best player in full view of everyone in the arena and watching on TV. And it was just as surprising to see the superstar seemingly accept the criticism with some sort of grace and understanding of the bigger picture.
"Every game," said Beal. "It never stops. Sometimes I gotta tell her to chill out because I'm a little older now. But she's still watching film. She probably watches film more than I do and she's up countless hours watching and critiquing my shot. She's been helping me out a lot. Both my parents, my whole family, they're always behind me 100 percent. My mom, she's probably my biggest critic by far. That's what made me into the player I am today, just her pushing me and making me want to do better."
"I'm making better reads now," Beal said. "The game's starting to slow down for me, which is making it that much easier for me. And my teammates did a great job of setting me up and putting me in positions to be able to make plays happen. And it was just all a matter of time. It's just a whole learning experience and I'm starting to realize how guys are starting to play me and realizing what they're trying to take away from me and increase those weaknesses, so to speak, and try to turn them into my strengths."
LeBron James is viewed as the front-runner for the MVP award because of his dominating all-around play for the reigning champion Miami Heat. But even with 12 straight wins entering Wednesday, the Heat still have four fewer wins than San Antonio. That's good enough for NBA analyst and Hall of Famer Charles Barkley, who recently endorsed Parker for the MVP award.
Parker was flattered by Barkley's backing and believes some past MVP winners who weren't viewed as the game's top player give him hope.
"LeBron is the best player in the NBA, by far. But if you want to give it to someone to change it, why not [me]?" Parker said with a laugh. "Charles Barkley had it one year [1992-93] even though M.J. [Michael Jordan] was the best player. Steve Nash got it [twice from 2004-06] even though Kobe [Bryant] was the best player in the NBA. But for me the most important thing is we win.
"If it [the MVP] happens, it happens. If not, LeBron is unbelievable. But for me, I don't think about it. It's not in my hands."
Felton, it turns out, is also who we thought he was -- not quite as bad as he looked during his disastrous 2011-12 campaign in Portland, but not as good as he played during his first half-season in New York or the opening month this season. As much as Felton's playmaking and his ability to generate steals have helped the Knicks, he has had a tough time scoring efficiently since the 3s stopped falling. Felton is making just 42.4 percent of his 2-point attempts and has seen his true shooting percentage slip to 47.5 percent -- far worse than the league average of 53.2 percent.
• Sixers coach Doug Collins flipped out on his team on Tuesday night. Kelly Dwyer of Yahoo! Sports reacts with a series of observations that highlight how, even amid the total frustration, Collins' love for the game shines through.
*The clarity to Collins’ recollections, just off hand revealing that the Magic had scored on 14 of 20 possessions to end the first half and the 7-0 run that Orlando opened the second half with … so telling. This is a basketball mind to be admired.
*The delicacy that the journalist uses in questioning the “material” on the team, in terms of leadership, and Collins’ talk about the “capabilities” of certain would-be leaders – it speaks to a roster that isn’t full of bums worth booing. Rip on Kwame, and make fun of Spencer Hawes’ hair, but Collins likes his guys. So does the press, in this regard. They just aren’t playing up to potential.
• Zach Lowe of Grantland encourages Collins to take more responsibility.
Give this same roster to Gregg Popovich or Rick Carlisle, and I’d bet good money they could lift it to within sniffing distance of league-average productivity. League-average isn’t great, but it’s good enough to be competitive. Philly hasn’t been competitive in months.
The Sixers could try pushing the pace, as Carlisle did early this season when he realized his team wasn’t good enough to score efficiently in the half court without Nowitzki. They could allow Thaddeus Young to shoot 3-pointers again. It’s a hazy memory now, but Young was a league-average 3-point shooter on a healthy number of attempts in both 2008-09 and 2009-10. They could have their bigs roll hard to the rim more often, just to see what might happen.
• John Schuhmann of NBA.com takes a number of local broadcasting crews to task for homerism and errors.
Noel is still experiencing swelling in his knees and doesn't yet have his ACL repair surgery scheduled. Once doctors go in and get a better picture of the injury and his recovery time, we'll have a better feel for Noel's draft stock. Every NBA scout and GM I've spoken with says that, assuming that there isn't anything unique about Noel's tear, they still have him as a top-five pick, and a number of GMs who said two weeks ago that they would be reluctant to take him No. 1 overall are softening their stance. He's the top talent on this Big Board and was No. 1 from July 1 all the way until the injury. I think there's a very good chance he ends the season No. 1 as well.• The Dallas Morning News reports that Mavericks owner Mark Cuban mocks Derek Fisher for signing with the Thunder after he left Dallas earlier this season.