In the emerging small-guard culture of the , visionary talent outweighs single-minded scorers and a handful of legitimate excuses. Without Chauncey Billups and with the sore-backed Amar’e Stoudemire a shadow of himself, the Knicks had their share after a 113-96 beat down by the in Game 3 of their now-lopsided playoff series.
More important, they had no answer for Rondo and wouldn’t have even if Billups had been able to play on two good 34-year-old legs.
With their season of rebirth following a decade of irrelevance nearing its end — Sunday’s Game 4 offers the opportunity to avoid a sweep — the lesson to take home for the summer is that, yes, the deal for required significant sacrifices.
It turns out that none were more unfortunate — for this season, at least — than the one people focused on least, the swapping of Raymond Felton for Billups.
Earlier in the week in Boston, the Knicks president, , admitted that he “hated to give up Felton,” who for almost four months provided quickness, penetration and a defensive presence that didn’t rank him among the elite but gave the Knicks what has been badly lacking in this first-round series.
In the wake of Game 3, which left the Garden crowd in a funereal mood after seeing its first playoff action in seven years, everybody was naturally awed by the shooting of Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. The two veterans riddled the Knicks from the perimeter, combining for 70 points on 25-for-37 shooting.
Rondo, meanwhile, had 20 assists on the way to a triple-double (15 points, 11 rebounds), moving Knicks Coach to say: “Rondo is good, he controlled the game, he controlled his team. But when you have Ray Allen and Paul Pierce hitting shots like that, that’s where your assists come from.”
This was a puzzling answer from a man who had a courtside view in Phoenix of the Steve Nash wizardry that earned him consecutive Most Valuable Player awards. Then again, D’Antoni no doubt had a say in the decision to trade Rondo to the Celtics after the drafted him with the 21st pick in 2006.
The acquisition merely gave the Celtics a world-class conductor for their Big Three symphony of Allen, Pierce and , as their coach, , was quick to acknowledge.
“To me, it is his play-calling tonight,” Rivers said of Rondo. “When he gets himself into a rhythm, it allows us as coaches to get into a rhythm because we see the game through him.”
Here is what Rivers saw in the third quarter when the Celtics broke open an 8-point game and snuffed out whatever fantasy the Knicks had of making a stand in the game and by extension the series. In a 34-point quarter, Rondo directly or indirectly accounted for 23 of the points with a stunning ubiquity — on the boards, on the break and with pinpoint accuracy in the half-court offense.
On the Knicks’ whiteboard in their pregame locker room, atop all other defensive mandates, in capital letters, it read: “STOP RONDO IN TRANSITION.” This was after he scored a playoff-career-high 30 points, most of them on the break, in Game 2.
But here is what makes Rondo part of the aforementioned point guard elite, despite a jump shot that is antithetical to the picturesque form of Allen: like Derrick Rose, he is a uniquely skilled hybrid player, mixing old-school instincts and new-age athleticism.
The common strategy is to back off him, dare him to shoot, but from the opening minutes of Game 3, Rondo had the body language of a counselor playing with the campers on field day, relaxed and free to roam and dissect the Knicks with impunity.
“The benefit when they lay off him is his vision,” Rivers said, who laughed and recalled his own early days in the league in Atlanta as a point guard who was welcome to dent the rim if he dared.
“Sometimes when they back off it screws you up so it’s hard to say whether it’s good or bad,” Rivers said. “When we do it to him in practice we’re not even sure.”
Maybe the success of the strategy all hinges on the flow of the game, every one of which creates its own identity and demands teams with championship aspirations to play fast, slow and in-between. Besides the Knicks’ bad luck with Billups and Stoudemire, that is the most glaring difference between them and their playoff-tested opponents.
With their maestro calling the shots, the Celtics have clear purpose on most possessions and the Knicks do not. As Walsh admitted last week in Boston, they are going to require a major upgrade at the point if they are going to compete at the N.B.A.’s highest level, no matter how many points Anthony can score.
It’s a familiar theme that has haunted the Knicks for years, or since they traded to Cleveland 34 years ago, or just about the time Chauncey Billups was born.