HOUSTON -- In Rajon Rondo's very first press conference in Interview Room 1 deep in the American Airlines Center, a day after the Mavericks made the blockbuster move for the seven-year Boston point guard, he said this of his new team.
"They're obviously a championship-caliber team, the players they have on their roster, the style of play. The coach is a guy that doesn't control much of the game. He lets the players make the plays. Everybody is on chemistry and intelligence from what I've seen and what I've played against. Those guys play extremely hard. They don't need much help putting the ball in the basket, but for me that's my job, to make things easy for the guys out there on the court to play with."
After he was benched 34 seconds into the second half on Tuesday, as he strode out of the locker room ignoring reporters waiting for him to speak and those who followed him into the Toyota Center's tunnels, those words ring hollow.
Rondo was a gamble from the day he was traded. The defense and rebounding came with a cost, since he didn't fit the Mavericks' free-flowing motion offense, not with his lack of shooting and ball-dominant style. Every profile ever written about him has used the words "enigmatic" or "mercurial" and even the coach who perhaps understood him best didn't always get along with him.
The four months since the trade have been rocky. He was benched for the final five minutes of a game in January, leading to the first round of "it was a coach's decision" when Carlisle was asked of his reasoning. Later in the month, a collision with his own teammate caused him to miss time. After his return, he ignored a Carlisle play call which led to a heated on-court confrontation and an ensuing one-game suspension. Rondo thought he would have complete control like he had with Rivers, clearly indicated at that December presser when he declared Carlisle is a coach who "lets the players make the plays." But Carlisle saw it as a right Rondo must earn. The two appeared to work out their differences and Rondo ran more plays, but the team suffered with him on the court.
Rondo's future with the team had grown murkier since he expressed a willingness to re-sign even before the trade was fully consummated. But headed into Tuesday's Game 2, several timelines were still present regarding his time in Dallas.
He appeared to be light and loose before the game. He recognized a former Celtics beat writer in the building and gave him a hello. He started towards the media dining door instead of the visiting locker room on accident, realized his mistake and spun away. "Practicing my spin move," he joked to no one in particular.
But it didn't translate once the game started. Perhaps he was trying too hard to take the game over. Maybe he assumed he could still flip the switch in the manner a younger Rondo used to do. It wasn't there, though. In slightly over five minutes, he missed two shots, forced a passing turnover in a 2-on-1 fast break and -- most explicitly -- walked the ball up so slowly the Mavs were called for an eight-second violation.
There was no urgency and even less when Carlisle brought him back for the final 5:30 of the first half. A struggling offense ran isolation plays that didn't start until 12 seconds on the shot clock. Lineups that featured 32-percent 3-point shooter J.J. Barea as the team's second-best deep threat suddenly had no room for error.
When he was benched 34 seconds into the third quarter after two fouls and a technical were assessed to him, and when he sat on the baseline removed from the Mavericks' bench for much of the rest of the game, and when he walked away from media without acknowledgement they even existed, it was mid-season trade on the brink of failure taking its last gasp.
Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle skirted around the question after the game, calling his failure to return a coach's decision. "You can ask him that question," he said regarding Rondo's effort. "All I know, right now, is that we need everybody at their competitive best. This isn't about one guy who did and didn't play."
In the locker room, Dirk Nowitzki dressed methodically. He's never been a player to call out his teammates publicly, but he didn't have to be in a rush to the waiting press conference, even as the Mavs public relations staff asked him to be quick. "I don't make decisions out there," he said when asked about Rondo's benching on the podium. "I play hard. I try and help my team win and the rest is on coach."
Rondo entered the day with a cloudy future and serious questions about where his career would go, but several timelines were still there. The Mavericks lost the game in the fourth quarter when the Rockets settled on an unremitting pick-and-roll offense that lobbed its way past slow-footed defenders. It's easy to imagine how a quick, aggressive defensive guard for Dallas could have eliminated the need for the switching defense that turned out to be more punching bag than an effective strategy.
But on Tuesday, there was no such guard on the Mavericks roster. And in the hours after Game 2, you couldn't help but feel the timeline where Rajon Rondo re-signs with Dallas has slipped away for good.