MEXICO CITY – The Sacramento Kings had just wrapped up their practice at the Mexico City Arena and ex-Celtic Rajon Rondo was holding court with the assembled media.
About 90 seconds into the question and answer session, there was a loud horn that blared for a couple seconds.
“That’s it!” said Rondo, who made a quick motion as if he was done talking and said grinning, “Nah; I’m just playing.”
Rondo was in a good mood, no doubt.
When you look at the way he has been playing in his first year with the Kings, it’s understandable why he’s feeling pretty good these days.
The former all-star guard is averaging 12.9 points and a league-best 10.7 assists along with snatching 7.1 rebounds per game for Sacramento (8-12).
In other words, he’s putting up Rondo-like numbers, the kind we had not seen since before he suffered a torn-ACL injury in 2013.
A healthy, high-impact Rondo will only make knocking off the Kings that much tougher for the Boston Celtics (10-8) who are off to their best start under third-year coach Brad Stevens.
“He’s been really good,” Stevens said. “Multiple, triple-double games. He’s always had one of the best abilities to pass the ball that I’ve ever seen. And he’s shooting good percentages and he’s playing well. I’m happy for Rajon.”
His play has not only been a positive for the Kings, but should pay off handsomely for Rondo in the summer of 2016 when he hits the free agent market for the second straight season at a time when the salary cap will reach unprecedented levels across the league.
This past summer, Rondo signed a one-year, $9.5 million deal with Sacramento which was for significantly less than what Rondo was seeking.
But there were some in NBA circles who felt even that was a bit high for Rondo after what all would agree was a disaster in Dallas.
“It was a learning experience,” Rondo said of his time in Dallas. “Obviously, we didn’t mesh well, personnel on the court, coaches … it was what it was, no excuses. I don’t live in the past. I’m here with a great team, great coach.”
That said, having a strong season is vital to Rondo at least putting himself back in the discussion among the league’s better point guards.
But he is quick to say that re-establishing his value isn’t a driving force behind his play this season.
“I just want to win,” Rondo said. “I’m not playing to get on the radar. If I do what I have to do on the court, I still feel like I’m one of the best if not one of the best point guards to play the game.”
He certainly has looked the part despite many questioning whether Rondo’s best days in the NBA were spent during his eight-plus seasons in Boston.
Boston’s Avery Bradley for one isn’t surprised to see Rondo playing at a high level with Sacramento.
“A lot of people are going to say negative stuff,” Bradley said. “We were talking about it this summer. You can’t worry what other people think. All you can do is control what you can control and go out there and be positive and try to help your team win every single night and that’s what he’s doing. Rondo’s a great competitor and a great player.”
And it will be on display Thursday night, but not necessarily for the reasons many might believe. Rondo downplayed the significance of facing Boston in part because 1) he has already faced them while playing with Dallas, and 2) this game is in Mexico City which he admitted would have a different vibe to it if it were at the TD Garden.
But there is an unmistakable motivation that he plays with that’s different than anything we’ve seen before.
He says it goes back to his torn-ACL injury which brought the mortality of being an NBA player up close and personal.
Massages and lifting sessions have become a daily routine for him now.
“Can’t take the game for granted,” Rondo told Comcast SportsNet. “Me tearing my ACL humbled me a lot, knowing that what I do for a living isn’t guaranteed.”
It not only has served as an added driving force to play well, but it’s also allowed him to better embrace the lessons he has learned along his NBA journey whether it’s from former teammates, opponents or coaches like Brad Stevens who Rondo holds in the highest regard.
“He’s amazed me from day one when he came to my camp,” Rondo, to Comcast SportsNet, said of Stevens. “We spoke basketball … he kind of reminds me of a young Rick Carlisle; he’s very crafty with his plays. He loves the game. He’s dedicated to what he does. He’s a man on a mission.
Rondo added, “The best thing I could say about him, he’s always positive. He was never negative; he was always willing to move on to the next play. So, if you play for a coach like that, the way that team is playing, he has a lot to do with their success.”
And the same can be said for Rondo as he tries to lead the Kings back to the postseason for the first time since 2006 – just months before he was drafted.
The Kings aren’t considered one of the favorites out West, which is a perfect scenario for Rondo who has made a career out of feeding off doubters.
“I know he’s a competitive player,” Bradley said. “On and off the court, Rondo’s a great leader. He’s like a brother to me.”
But when the ball tips off tomorrow night …
“Once you cross these lines and its game time, you’re no longer friends,” Bradley said. “I know that’s how Rondo thinks. It’s fun to get a chance to play against him.”