In his heyday with the Boston Celtics, Rajon Rondo built his NBA reputation with his prowess in the playoffs.
There was the triple-double — 29 points, 18 rebounds, 13 assists — the ex-Kentucky point guard dropped on LeBron James and Cleveland in Game Four of the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals. There was the 44-point masterpiece — hitting 16-of-24 shots with 10 assists and eight rebounds — against the Miami Heat in Game Two of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals.
When Boston claimed its first NBA title since 1986 by closing out the Los Angeles Lakers in Game Six of the 2008 NBA Finals, Rondo had his stamp all over that with 21 points, seven rebounds, eight assists and six steals.
Thus was born the legend of "Playoff Rondo."
Yet for those of us who admire Rondo's unique basketball skill set, what has happened to the Louisville product this year in the NBA playoffs has been sad to watch. At the worst possible time for a pending NBA free agent, Rondo crashed and burned with his new team, the Dallas Mavericks.
In a perplexing performance in Game Two of the Mavs' Western Conference first-round series with Houston, Rondo: 1.) walked the ball up court so deliberately, he took an eight-second (back-court) violation; 2.) appeared confused on defense and allowed the Rockets' Jason Terry to bury an open three-pointer; 3.) committed two fouls and a technical foul in the first 37 seconds of the third quarter.
Following the rash of fouls, Mavericks Coach Rick Carlisle benched Rondo and never put him back into the game. The next day, Dallas announced that Rondo had a "back injury" and was out for the season.
Asked if he expected to ever see Rondo in a Mavericks uniform again, Carlisle was blunt. "No, I don't," the coach said.
After the Mavericks acquired Rondo in a trade from Boston in December, it took slightly more than two months for the relationship between Carlisle, who led the Mavs to the 2011 NBA title, and Rondo to turn toxic.
Carlisle apparently likes to call his team's offensive plays. Rondo, whose basketball IQ is widely acknowledged to be off the charts, apparently chafed under that arrangement.
The two had a major blow up Feb. 24 in what became a Dallas victory over the Toronto Raptors. Rondo ignored a play call from Carlisle. The coach took a timeout and lit into the point guard. Eventually, the two engaged in what was described by reporters as "a profanity-laced shouting match."
It was quite possibly the most public reprimand Rondo had received from a coach since Tubby Smith, amidst a three-game Kentucky losing streak in 2005-06, benched Rondo and started the less-heralded Brandon Stockton for six games instead.
(In an odd coincidence, Tubby, now the Texas Tech head man, was at the game in Dallas where Rondo and Carlisle had their public row).
So rather than entering NBA free agency in a position of strength, Rondo needs a plan to rebuild both his game and his name. Dreams of signing a maximum contract that would cement his status among the elite point guards in the league are now out the door.
Moody, proud, incredibly bright, Rondo is a complex personality that challenges a coach. In Boston, his production on the court more than justified the effort it took to "manage" Rondo.
Now, the issues with Carlisle in Dallas have brought back questions about Rondo's "coachability." The timing is horrible because a school of thought has emerged that the way NBA offenses have evolved threatens to render Rondo far less valuable.
If you watched San Antonio dismantle Miami in last year's NBA Finals; if you've seen how the Atlanta Hawks played this year in amassing 60 wins, you saw the NBA trend: Spread the court, whip the ball around and rely on having four players who can make three-point shots surrounding a post player.
Rondo is a ball-dominant guard who prefers a slower pace and has never been a consistent perimeter shooter.
At 29, can Rondo change his game to fit what the NBA is becoming? If not, can he find a team that suits his skills as well as the Pierce-Garnett-Allen Celtics did?
Scuttlebutt is the Los Angeles Lakers are Rondo's most likely suitor, albeit on a cut-rate, short-term deal.
With so much at stake for his future and legacy, "Playoff Rondo" picked a horrid time to go missing.