The last player in the locker room Monday was Rajon Rondo.
In the first days after his trade to Dallas, he was guarded and more punctual. He dressed meticulously -- shoes, jewelry, jacket all in place -- before he even turned to face reporters. He was careful to say the right thing. But on Monday, after making his impact felt all over the court with 11 points, 13 assists and four rebounds, he motioned reporters to come to him in the middle of the room, away from the crowded corner of his own locker. Still wrapped in towels, he was asked about shooting jumpers and said that if he doesn't make them then he'll get benched -- then smiled and laughed in clear indication he was just joking around.
On and off the court, the signs of acclimation are clear: Rajon Rondo is finally feeling comfortable.
That wasn't something even on the horizon in late February, when Rondo and Rick Carlisle engaged in an on-court yelling match that resulted in a one-game suspension. But Rondo fights with all his coaches. This isn't something new.
On Wednesday, Rajon Rondo committed eight turnovers in a 107-102 win against the Magic. That's too many, we said. That's too many, he said. That's too many, Rick said. But Rondo's no longer apologizing for his playing style or making mistakes.
"I think it's a fine line," said Rondo, when asked if aggression can turn into recklessness "Tonight I had a lot of turnovers. I'll go back and watch the film but for the most part, me thinking about a lot of them -- I couple of them I had loose balls, rebounds, tipped it out and it went off my leg, two of those, and a couple of passes where Dirk and I weren't on the same page -- this is the way I play. Every turnover tonight -- that last one, I needed Monta to get to the corner -- but other than that, I don't think I made any reckless plays."
Carlisle echoed the same sentiment: "I liked his aggression. There were a couple times the ball just slipped out of his hands, but some of the things were just a little speculative on everybody's part tonight, not just him."
This is part of a mutual understanding that is being built among the two. Lately, Carlisle has been meeting with Rondo before games to quiz him on the exact workings of the offense. If the Mavericks want to get Dirk Nowitzki an elbow jump shot off of a pin down screen, which play do you call? What about Monta?
"It's just coach and I in the room," Rondo said. "He's yelling at me a lot. I try not to crack under pressure and give him what he needs. It's calling out plays. For example, if I want to get Monta a shot on a pin down, if I want to single ice [isolation], a lot of basketball terminology to make sure we're on the same page."
Carlisle has handed over more play-calling duties to his mercurial point guard and Rondo is calling the plays Carlisle wants more and more. Ultimately, the team is better with no play calls -- in the Mavericks' flow offense, Carlisle has long favored people reading and reacting through constant movement to precise, carefully executed precision.
Passes like this one from Wednesday show a comfort that a mistake or a poor play isn't putting Rondo on the bench.
With Rondo, sometimes you'll live with an eight turnover game. That's who he is, and expecting anything else -- which for a while, the Mavericks seemed to be -- is foolish and takes away from Rondo's strengths as a player. After a 30-point blowout to the Cavaliers, the Mavericks had been outscored by 88 points with Rondo on the court this season. He's still not a perfect fit, but in the three wins since, he's a team-best +25.
"He's more comfortable," Dirk Nowitzki said. "I think that shows. I think he knows the plays better. He's got a better feel for it and it feels like all the plays come more natural for him, and he just calls them on the fly. He's doing a great job just spreading the ball around, being aggressive and getting in the paint. We need him to be aggressive."
If the Mavericks are going to come together, they need to do it right now. Who knows -- maybe this whole Rondo thing will work out after all.
"He seems like he's comfortable with his teammates, comfortable with our sets, personnel, able to be vocal right now," Tyson Chandler said. "It's a taken a while for us to all understand each other. Right now, we've kind of come together at the perfect time."