CHICAGO — Since Rajon Rondo got to the NBA the criticism came in a steady flow, like some never-ending layup line, and all he did was keep shooting.
"You got to pick on someone," the former UK point guard said.
It's hard to pick on Rondo at the moment.
All Rondo doing is outplaying rookie of the year Derrick Rose, and the defending champion Boston Celtics lead the Chicago Bulls 2-1 heading into Game 4 of their first-round series on Sunday.
Rondo is averaging team-highs in points (22.7), rebounds (10.7), assists (9.7) and steals (4.0) while shooting 50 percent. Not bad for a guy who supposedly couldn't shoot and only played well at home.
"Every city you go to, (the questions) are about what Rondo can't do and what he's not doing," Coach Doc Rivers said. "And I keep saying, 'He's won a world championship at the point guard spot. He's had an unbelievable year, and we continually want to keep picking at what's wrong.' I try to look at his brilliance while playing through those flaws."
Rivers understood the criticism last season, Rondo's second. After all, he was unproven and hadn't won anything.
But this year? Rivers didn't get it.
Rondo's scoring average has gone from 6.4 as a rookie to 10.6 to 11.9 this season. His assists have climbed from 3.8 to 5.1 to 8.2, and his shooting percentage has jumped from 41.8 to 49.2 to 50.5, including 31.3 on three-pointers.
"I think he's played at an elite level in this playoff series, no doubt about it," Rivers said. "And I think he's played at times this year at an elite level. He's gone up and down at times, but that is his youth. ... He came into this playoffs with a chip because everyone said he only played well at home last year."
Rondo, however, said: "I don't try to prove anything to anybody. I play for myself and for the team. That's about it."
While Rose delivered one of the greatest performances by a debuting rookie, tying Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's record with 36 points in a 105-103 overtime Game 1 win, Rondo wasn't bad, either. And unlike Rose, he didn't tail off in the next two games.
He played even better after contributing 29 points, seven assists and nine rebounds in the opener. In Game 2, Rondo had 19 points, 16 assists and 12 rebounds in a 118-115 win, despite spraining his right ankle. And on Thursday, he delivered 20 points, 11 rebounds — all defensive — and five steals in a 107-86 win at the United Center before being helped to the locker room afterward.
He said his ankle was fine, that his foot was bothering him, and that he would be ready for Game 4. On Saturday, Rondo went through practice with "no problems," Rivers said.
"They carried him off afterward," the coach joked.
The point guard's play is no laughing matter to the Bulls. His work on defense, particularly on the glass, helped prevent the Bulls from pushing the tempo in Game 3, and he continues to hit his shots.
"I remember in college we used to beg him to shoot," Chicago's Joakim Noah said, referring to those Florida-Kentucky games.
Rose, meanwhile, has struggled against aggressive double teams the past two games, scoring 10 in Game 2 and nine in Game 3 while committing seven turnovers. The same goes for Ben Gordon, who went from 42 points to 15 on Thursday.
Noah said it's on the big men to make the Celtics pay. That means crisper passes, not necessarily more scoring from him, Tyrus Thomas and Brad Miller.
The Bulls need to swing the ball and find openings when the guards are doubled.
"Our bigs are good passers," Noah said. "We can make plays. I don't think we did a great job of that (in Game 3)."
That they didn't was a surprise, given the way the Bulls played down the stretch.
The Bulls hit the 100-point mark in 13 of the final 17 regular-season games, scoring at least 91 each time, after a 107-79 loss at Orlando on March 11. It was more of the same in the first two games of this series before the Celtics finally clamped down.
Or did the Bulls simply stumble?
Noah saw a team that rushed shots, lacked poise.
"It was embarrassing," he said. "It's a situation we can't forget. But we must cherish the ball and not turn it over, play every possession like it's our last."
He'll get no argument from Rose.
"Going into the next game, I shouldn't have any turnovers," he said.