Before Rajon Rondo’s season (and for all intents and purposes, the Celtics season) abruptly ended during a Friday night game in Atlanta in late January, much of the discussion around him centered on his over-hyped assist streak. Remember, the one that saw him continually dish out double-digit assists in consecutive games challenging legendary point guards Magic Johnson and John Stockton. Ironically, Rondo destroyed his own chances at the record by fighting his now teammate, Kris Humphries just before the Thanksgiving. But about a week prior to that, on a random Sunday evening game in Detroit, the Celtics were inexplicably getting blasted by a mediocre Pistons team when Doc Rivers and Rondo went against the very grain that makes up the classic Celtics tradition. Or did they?
Late in the game, the Celtics were well on their way to a disappointing loss when Doc decided to forgo the “Celtics ubuntu all-team, all the time” mentality. He re-inserted Rondo into the game to manufacture assists to keep a random streak alive. It seemed like it didn’t work until rookie Jared Sullinger bailed out Rondo (and Doc) with a couple of late games baskets to get Rondo his 10th assist. When asked about it after the game, Doc had the following response:
With the Celtics well on their way to a blowout loss at Detroit, Rivers elected to keep Rondo on the floor in the game’s final seconds with a clear goal in mind – to keep his double digit assists streak alive.
“Why not? You guys keep talking about it, so I figured give him a shot at it.”
Rondo’s streak – 34 games and counting – remains intact by the slimmest of margins as his 10th assist did not come until a 21-foot jumper by rookie Jared Sullinger with 51 seconds to play.
Moments after he had his 10th assist, Leandro Barbosa was making his way to the scorer’s table to replace Rondo.
The idea to work towards keeping Rondo’s record going strong was apparently hatched during a time-out with 1:38 to play.
“When I called a time-out,” Rivers recalled, “I said, ‘guys, we’re going to lose the game by the way.’ Let’s not play crazy, but if we can get him two more (assists), let’s do it. If not, that’s it. First time we’ve done that.”
What resulted was what typically happens in today’s ridiculous 24/7 around-the-clock media/fan scrutinized sports world we live in: Rondo and Doc got blasted, and to this day it’s still looked down upon and discussed as one of the most embarrassing episodes of the season. Boneheaded maneuver by both? Sure. Suggesting that it flies in the face of everything the Celtics stand for is going overboard and history has proven so. Red Auerbach would NEVER pull such a bush league move you say? Time for a little history lesson, kids.
Back in 2005, Bill Reynolds authored a fantastic book about Bob Cousy entitled “Cousy.” It gives great detail about Cousy’s life off the court as well as on it. If you turn to page 213 you can find the following paragraph:
When the Celtics-Lakers game began, though, it seemed as if it were still a ‘Trotters exhibition. Eventually, seven Celtics scored 20 points or more and Cousy set an NBA record of 28 assists. He was already out of the game when word came down that he was one assist short of Richie Guerin’s NBA record of 21. So Auerbach put him back into the game, where he quickly found Sam Jones on a two-on-one break to tie the record, then quickly flipped the ball to Luscotoff for another score to break it.
Keep in mind that this was (and still is) a Celtics record for most points in a game, when they destroyed the Lakers 173-139. By the time Auerbach re-inserted Cousy to go after a NON-TEAM record, they were already winning 121-95. They had scored 40, 43 and 38 points in each of the first three quarters and Auerbach decided to rub it in by blasting another 52 (!!!) on the Lakers in the 4th quarter alone. Not only did Cousy promptly break Guerin’s record, Auerbach kept him in there for another six assists, just for good measure. Not enough evidence for you?
Back in 1975, Joe Fitzgerald wrote an incredibly in-depth historical (up to that point) review of the Celtics, entitled “That Championship Feeling.” If you turn to page 77, you’ll find another interesting (and non-ubuntu) incident that took place in that same 1959 campaign:
Usually, though, there was a method in Auerbach’s needling… The last regular season game of the 1958-59 season, for instance, was in New York, and just before the Celtics went out onto the court, Jack Barry of the Globe happened to mention that Cousy had 1,255 points so far. An additional forty-two would bring his final average to an even twenty. So the Celts fed him until he had an even forty-two. It was almost that simple playing against the Knicks back then.
Note: the official box score shows that Cousy actually had 37 points, but the point is that the individual record was forced above the team.
What’s the point in bringing any of this up you ask? Simple: in general, media and fans tend to take scenarios today and go way too overboard. Now, I’m hardly advocating what Doc and Rondo did was something that should be continually repeated. But I think people forget that even the legends like Red and Cousy once did the same kind of things. It wasn’t just them either. We all laugh at Larry Bird when he broke Kevin McHale’s week-long single-game Celtics scoring record of 56 by dropping 60 on the Hawks. We laugh because Bird said “McHale should have gone for 60” just after he broke it. As much as a competitor Bird was, I’m going to assume that he wanted to break that record sooner rather than later. And I have no problem with it.
Now there are truly stupid moments like Ricky Davis shooting at his own basket, attempting to miss and grab his own rebound for a triple-double. But these instances aren’t those. While I don’t think the silly assist streak was as big a detriment as most do, I think the attention it got was far worse. It was a random stats-based record that just got tossed out there and it got out of control. So when Doc forced the issue (and Rondo obliged) it became easy fodder for attack. History shows us though that’s it’s really nothing new, especially with the organization that defined TEAM. But, in today’s 24/7 cycle, it gets a bit out of control.