BOSTON -- How could the Celtics ever justify trading Rajon Rondo after he produced an outrageous triple-double of 20 assists, 18 points and 17 rebounds?
Or maybe that is the wrong question. Perhaps now is the perfect time to move Rondo, following a 115-111 overtime win over the Knicks in which he made the kind of sensational impact that neither Jeremy Lin nor any other currently employed point guard could make on an NBA game.
It remains difficult to know whether the Celtics are desperate or encouraged. On a 48-minute Sunday in which they'd forced 21 turnovers and held the Knicks to 17 fewer field goal attempts, Boston needed a game-saving three by Paul Pierce (34 points) along with an Oscar Robertson impersonation by Rondo in order to force overtime. The margins could not be slimmer, and yet they won one they couldn't afford to lose. Coach Doc Rivers had counseled his elderly stars on the need to maintain the tiebreaker edge (now 2-1) and home-court advantage (11 straight wins here) vs. New York.
"The biggest thing is, they're getting confident," Rivers said of the Knicks. "They haven't had it, and now they're getting it."
Rondo kept them from consummating it. No player had acquired at least 17 of everything since 1989, when Magic Johnson had a triple-double of 24 points, 17 rebounds and 17 assists. Rondo's extraordinary third quarter of seven assists (more than Lin was able to manage in 32 minutes overall) stretched the Celtics out to a 25-5 run over a pace-controlling span of eight minutes and pushed them out to an 80-65 lead.
That advantage eroded over the next dozen minutes as Rondo missed all six of his field goals in the fourth. When he struggles in the least, the Celtics look and play like an old team that they've become around him. He could not possibly be more valuable to this team, and so all that remains is for an opponent to offer talent in a trade that recognizes his value. Then the Celtics will have to decide whether to rebuild to an entirely new dynamic, or else to relaunch around Rondo, the last of the pure point guards.
This fascinating back-and-forth afternoon raised the question of what Rondo might (or might not) be able to accomplish next season -- if, say, he no longer benefits from the floor-spacing presences of Kevin Garnett (who was aggressive for his 18 points, 10 rebounds, four steals, three assists and two blocks) and Ray Allen (12 points, including five straight in transition to break open the OT), who will be free agents this summer. If Rondo isn't surrounded by such tremendous shooters, will his production suffer? If a pass-first point guard like Rondo isn't winning games, which might very well be the case here next season, will his value necessarily decrease? If that's going to happen, then obviously the Celtics ought to be seeking trades sooner than later.
But then, it's also possible that Rondo's individual numbers may spike up if he is surrounded by less talent one year from now. Next you can throw in the issue of his leadership -- which was exceptional in this game, and not so good last month when he was suspended from two games for throwing the ball at a referee -- and these become the kinds of half-full/half-empty issues that Rivers and team president Danny Ainge will have to resolve if a trade worthy of consideration becomes available before the March 15 deadline.
Anyone who values team play has to revere Rondo's command of this game, which he dominated while taking 20 shots in 48 minutes.
"He's the smartest one I've been around," said Rivers of his point guard, who was calling most of Boston's plays in the flow.
Lin, by contrast, was naturally overwhelmed by foul trouble and an assist-turnover ratio of 2-to-6 entering the final 7:16 of regulation.
"There's no way you can throw him in here first time he ever does it and expect it to be perfect," said Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni of Lin's first start in Boston, across the river from Harvard, where he starred for four years in the Ivy League. "But he finds a way to be very positive in the end of games."
Over the years the Celtics have forced high-turnover performances from more talented players like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, and they were generating the same outcome for Lin by pressuring the ball and then cutting off his passing lanes. When he returned midway through the fourth he wisely pursued an agenda of less-is-more while releasing the ball in the frontcourt to Carmelo Anthony (25 points overall, including 11 in the quarter) and Iman Shumpert (six in the quarter). Anthony was terrific as regulation wound down.
The question of whether Anthony would damage Lin was turned upside-down, as the Knicks were better when their point guard didn't dominate the ball and chose instead to feed his scorers. Eventually down the stretch Lin was able to make a couple of big plays away from the ball -- stealing back control of a near-turnover for a drive, followed by an open three from the corner that brought the Knicks within 96-95 into the final two minutes of regulation. But then Lin (1-of-7) and Anthony combined to go 1-for-11 in the OT.
And still there is this: Rondo's triple-double would have been put to extravagant waste if not for the three Pierce drilled after the Knicks broke up Rondo's attempt to find Allen in the final seconds of regulation.
"I don't know if that's execution; that's having a horseshoe up your rear," D'Antoni said. "That's what Paul Pierce does though. You've got to give him credit with that, but there's no execution with that one. That's just going out and making a shot."
Rivers was upbeat after watching all of his starters score in double figures while the Knicks were being held to 19 of 55 from the field after halftime.
"We just have life right now, you can see it," he said of the fourth straight win since the All-Star break for his 19-17 Celtics. "We're playing at a pace we want to play and we're defending. That's who we should be and who we will be."
Unless, of course, someone makes the kind of offer they can't refuse.