WALTHAM, Mass. — There are only a handful of players remaining on the Boston Celtics’ roster who played alongside Rajon Rondo and only one — Avery Bradley — who was there before the ACL tear that slowed Rondo after four consecutive All-Star appearances.
And yet the legend of “National TV Rondo” has been passed on to a new generation of Celtics, including Isaiah Thomas, who emerged as the new face of the franchise in the aftermath of Rondo’s being dealt to the Dallas Mavericks in December 2014. As the top-seeded Celtics prepare for their first-round matchup with the eighth-seeded Chicago Bulls, they are well aware of Rondo’s propensity to elevate his play when the games matter most.
“I’m a fan of the game. I know, whether he tries it or not, those big games he’s always gonna be ready for them,” Thomas said Friday after the Celtics went through their first workout of the postseason. The Celtics host the Bulls in Game 1 on Sunday night at TD Garden.
“He’s always gonna play his best [in big games],” said Thomas. “And that’s just me watching him when I was younger and before I got in the NBA. You know, when it counts, he’s gonna be ready and he’s gonna perform. So we’ve got to slow him down and eliminate what he does best, and that’s getting everyone involved.”
If there’s one obvious advantage the Bulls possess in this first-round matchup, it’s playoff experience. Rondo and teammate Dwyane Wade have combined to play in 260 postseason games and win four NBA championships. Yes, both are different players in the latter stages of their careers, but they know how to win on the big stage.
This young Celtics core, helmed by Thomas, has been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in each of the past two seasons.
“Rondo’s a hell of a guard and then you’ve got Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler and you’ve just got to make it hard for them, make it tough for them,” Thomas said. “Don’t let them see anything easy. It’s not just gonna be an individual defensive matchup. As a team, as a collective group, we’ve got to let them see five guys every time down. I mean Dwyane Wade is a guy that’s won championships, so he knows what to expect. We’ve got to be ready and I think we’re ready for the opportunity.”
Said Celtics coach Brad Stevens: “I’ve watched [Rondo and Wade] for way before I was in the NBA. I’m pretty sure we’re going to get great shots from both of them.”
Thomas is also certain that Boston fans are going to shower Rondo with affection for what he meant to the 2008 championship team and Boston’s playoff success in the years that followed, including deep postseason runs in 2010 and 2012.
“He won a championship here so they love the guy,” said Thomas. “It won’t be no bad feelings. I’ve heard if you win a championship here they’re gonna love you forever, so he’s earned that and he’s one of the best guards to ever play.”
Thomas hasn’t proved himself as a winner in the postseason, but he’s highly motivated to do so this year, especially after a regular season in which he put himself in the MVP conversation with his offensive wizardry.
When asked about what to expect from Thomas in the postseason, he smiled and said, “I’m ready for it.”
Bradley, easily the longest-tenured player on Boston’s roster despite being only 26 years old, fondly recalled what Rondo meant to him as a younger player.
“Rondo’s like my brother. On the court, off the court, we’re brothers,” said Bradley. “It’s weird playing against him, going up against him, but I think I said it last game: I know he’s a true competitor and he’s going to bring his best game in the playoffs. So it’s going to be fun playing against him. Weird but fun.
“I grew as a player and as a man. He’s helped me out in a lot of different ways. And I appreciate him. All his time here I feel like he was one of the best teammates that I’ve had. And he was a true competitor, one of the hardest-playing teammates I played with.
“His desire to win, I don’t know that many people (like that). He’s so competitive. It doesn’t matter what we’re playing. If we’re playing tic-tac-toe he wants to win every single game. So I respect that about him.”
Bradley said it was hard to watch Rondo struggle to perform like the franchise player he was in Boston during combustible stints in Dallas and Sacramento. And, from afar, Bradley remained supportive of Boston’s former captain.
“It was hard hearing all the negative things about him,” said Bradley. “But I just prayed for him. I wished him well. I would send him texts every now and then like, ‘Bro, it doesn’t matter.’ We’ve all been there before. He’s been the underdog before. He came into the NBA, people not thinking he could play. Everybody’s been there. It’s just their job to continue to work and prove people wrong. I feel like every year he’s been trying to do that.”