After that game, which Milwaukee won in overtime, Jennings asked rookie guard Doron Lamb if Rondo had crept into his head. "That's what he does," Jennings says. "He's not like D-Rose or Deron Williams or Tony Parker, who keep you on your toes every night. He'll talk trash and get physical. At one point I thought we were going to fight."
Rondo lives in a Boston suburb—his address, like his jersey, is number 9—with his fiancée, Ashley Bachelor, their five-year-old daughter, Ryelle, and one-year-old son, Rajon Jr. He comes across as warm and genial in a one-on-one conversation, describing the manicures he gets with Ryelle. "He is one of my best friends," says Orlando forward Glen (Big Baby) Davis, a former Celtic. "But on the floor he is a stone-cold killer, trained by Kevin Garnett."
For five years Rondo has seen how Garnett intimidates adversaries—"He'll talk trash and mess a guy up the rest of the game," Rondo says—while buttressing teammates. When Boston faces an elite scorer, Garnett helps off his man so that no one gets embarrassed. When the Celtics are tiring at the end of sprints, Garnett breaks into song, and everybody inhales a second wind. Rondo struggles to sleep after games, watching the replay on TV at 2 a.m. and texting Garnett around four. KG always seems to be awake. "Kevin gives tough love, and some guys can't handle it," says Flip Saunders, who coached Garnett in Minnesota. "The ones who can, become lifelong friends."
The best franchises are families, in that elders care for their heirs, until heirs have to care for their elders. When Boston faces top power forwards, Rondo helps off his man, to protect Garnett. "Kevin Love isn't going to get an open look," he vows. There is pride among the Celtics, often lacking in pro sports, which explains better than any metric how they rallied after Rondo was lost. In light of reports linking Garnett to a handful of contenders, he doubled down on his connection to Boston, insisting he would not waive his no-trade clause. The Celtics have an image to uphold, hard and crusty, so it's comical when they follow Rondo's lead at restaurants and order Shirley Temples. "Waitresses are like, 'What?'" Rondo says. "I feel like I have to add a splash of Patron, and I don't even really drink." He is both product and purveyor of this environment. "Rajon has been bred by the culture we created," Garnett says. "He is carrying on the tradition."
Rondo will spend the next six to nine months chasing Peterson, the new standard for ACL patients, and when he returns, the Celtics will be different. They are learning to rebound and run, with a variety of ballhandlers, instead of always waiting in the backcourt for Rondo. He will be free to score off someone else's pass, if he's willing. "He's the smartest guy in the room," Ainge says, "and the most stubborn." The battle that rages within Rondo will determine how he responds. He is smart enough to recognize the benefit of change and stubborn enough to resist it. The Celtics could always rebuild by trading Rondo and his relatively reasonable $11 million salary, but it is more likely they will trust his ability to adapt and deploy him as a lure for free agents. Rondo doesn't glad-hand anybody but claims to be 7 for 8 as a recruiter, selling targets on the benefits of Doc Rivers and a pure point guard. He is more of a people person than he thinks.
As Rondo finishes lunch and his last Shirley Temple—"I've got to lighten up on these," he says—he remembers that the Celtics are hosting a party for kids the next day on the second floor of their practice facility. The room will be filled with desks, and on each desk will be a Connect Four grid, and Rondo will play anyone who dares. "It'll be fun," he says with a half-smile. "I've got to beat the s--- out of them."