Coach Rick Carlisle made no mention of a sore back bothering Rondo when asked why the four-time All-Star point guard, who Dallas acquired from Boston in a December blockbuster deal, played a grand total of 34 seconds in the second half of Tuesday's Game 2 playoff loss to the Houston Rockets. He cited Rondo's foul trouble and the fact that backups J.J. Barea and Raymond Felton were performing better. "Coach's decision," Carlisle said, the same term he used without elaboration to explain benching Rondo for crunch time in a close loss about a month after the trade.
Nor did Rondo's health come up when Carlisle was asked whether the point guard, who picked up two silly fouls and a technical during that 34-second stint to start the second half, even wanted to be on the floor.
"You have to ask him that question," Carlisle said. "All I know right now is that we need everybody at their competitive best. This isn't about one guy who did or didn't play. This is about everybody pulling in the same direction for the organization. That's what it's about."
Rondo refused to answer questions as he exited the Toyota Center on Tuesday, the first Dallas player to leave the locker room. He stepped into the trainer's room briefly after getting dressed -- not to get treatment, but because he knew the area was off-limits to the media.
So the Mavs' press release the next afternoon, stating that Rondo was out indefinitely and seeking additional medical opinions, caused more than a few eyes to roll throughout the organization.
During a hastily called press conference, Carlisle dutifully explained that Rondo suffered the injury in the first minute of the game when he tried to draw a charge on James Harden, although the coach acknowledged that some would consider the story suspicious.
Carlisle, who cut off the Rondo discussion after a handful of questions, never made it clear how Rondo's supposedly sore back might have affected the brain of a point guard who has built a reputation as a basketball genius. What did that have to do with Rondo getting whistled for an eight-second backcourt violation while nonchalantly walking the ball up the floor in the first quarter? Or wandering aimlessly on defense seconds later while the man he was supposed to be guarding hit a wide-open 3-pointer? Or his 34-second spree of stupidity before sitting the rest of the game?
There was no doubt, though, about whether Carlisle shot straight after he was asked whether he expected Rondo to ever wear a Mavs uniform again.
"Um, no, I don't," Carlisle said, ending a partnership that started only 125 days earlier.
This is the story of Rick Carlisle and his rocky relationships with two headstrong point guards. There's Jason Kidd, whom Carlisle now considers a close personal friend. And then there's Rajon Rondo.
The most exciting moment of the Dallas Mavericks' 50-win regular season happened during a third-quarter timeout.
A snarling Carlisle stomped onto the court and angrily jammed his hands together in a timeout signal, focused on getting the attention of the recently acquired point guard who had been ignoring him. He ranted across the court at Rondo, screaming at him about blowing off a play call from the sideline.
After Rondo responded by loudly and profanely informing Carlisle that he'd call the plays, the take-no-bull coach told the stubborn point guard to "sit the f--- down," pointing toward the bench where Rondo spent the rest of the late February game watching the Mavs pull off a comeback win over the Toronto Raptors.
The argument continued through the dead ball. At times assistant coach Jamahl Mosley's body seemed to be the only thing preventing Rondo from getting in Carlisle's face. That ultimately happened in the locker room after the game, when Rondo and Carlisle went nose to nose in a heated exchange that made the talk during the timeout seem like Sunday tea.
When the smoke cleared, Rondo served a one-game suspension, and the analysis wrote itself. Not three months into their lives together, Rondo and Carlisle had already entered the endgame of their working relationship. They had found their irreparable differences and all that was left was the divorce, to come via offseason free agency.
But the truth is that the road to this parting had far more twists than that. Rondo and Carlisle recently raved about each other's professionalism, and many in the organization pointed to Carlisle's relationship with Kidd as the model.
Jason Kidd -- now head coach of the Bucks, but not long ago Carlisle's title-winning point guard -- had seen Carlisle and Rondo arguing on TV, and knew too well what it felt like to be Rondo, and how Carlisle could nitpick and control and make a point guard crazy.
But he also had an optimistic idea about how it could all work out in the long run.
Carlisle and Kidd went through more than has ever been reported.
They both brought reputations with them to Dallas in 2008. Kidd, who came at the trade deadline, was the point guard who butted heads with coaches (most notably Byron Scott of the Nets, who was fired after two NBA Finals trips). Carlisle, who was hired a few months later, as the coach some considered a control freak.
Carlisle had plenty of confrontations during his time in Indiana coaching Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson, Jamaal Tinsley and the like.
The Pacers were good. They won 61 games and advanced to the Eastern Conference finals in Carlisle's first season. They won a playoff series the next year despite the "Malice at the Palace" savaging their roster with suspensions.
Throughout they played a slow, deliberate style, with Carlisle meticulously controlling the game from the sidelines, calling plays on nearly every possession.
Former Pacers recall that being particularly frustrating for Tinsley, who had been given much more freedom under previous coach Isiah Thomas. Anthony Johnson, a point guard on the team, remembers asking Carlisle if he'd play the same way with Kidd, then considered the NBA's premier point guard.
"If I had Jason Kidd, you'd better believe I'd let him go," Johnson remembers Carlisle answering.
The conflicts started early.
The friction between Kidd and Carlisle never made SportsCenter, but it was obvious to everyone in the organization.
"Rick and Jason used to get into it about the exact same thing except Jason's demeanor was so quiet that a lot of times people didn't know that they were arguing," former Mavs center Brendan Haywood, who joined the team in 2009, remembers. "They had an argument on the bench with four-letter words going back and forth, but no one knew because of Jason's demeanor."
"Things only got contentious when we were losing," Carlisle said in his spacious hotel suite during a break from watching film the night before the Mavs' April 10 win in Denver. "I mean, you're talking about a guy who's one of the most resourceful winners in the history of the game and whose moods were totally influenced by winning and losing. So when we were going good, things were good. And when we were losing, it killed him."
Kidd was coy when asked about the calm confrontations on the bench between him and Carlisle.
"Oh, maybe. I won't answer yes or no," Kidd said with a grin. "We disagreed sometimes. Players are going to disagree."
Kidd's elite credentials didn't grant him an exemption from being harshly criticized by the coach in front of his teammates during film sessions or practices. That's part of the business relationship Carlisle has with every player he coaches, from Dirk Nowitzki on down. Kidd, 35 years old with nine All-Star appearances at the time, found that hard to swallow.
"For any competitor, if he's being honest, sometimes it's all right to be jumped," Kidd said. "I don't want to say called out publicly, but called out publicly within the team. It's all right to be jumped. I saw that up close when I was there. I think it's healthy because it shows that someone isn't just going along for the ride.
"If someone is dogging it, he has every right to jump. He'll jump Dirk. He'll jump 'em all. He's as close as there is to Pop [when it comes to] holding the star as accountable as the 15th guy.
"You never appreciate it at that moment because you probably feel like you're playing hard or maybe you are cruising but you're just trying to get through practice. There's so many things that a coach is looking at. He's setting an example for the tone of practice. If as a star you're cruising, it just sends the wrong message and the coach jumps you because the other guys are going to cruise through it. You sometimes don't see that, but as a coach now, you see kind of the full picture."
Most of Kidd and Carlisle's disagreements weren't about effort, though. They were about control -- of the offense, tempo and ball. Kidd didn't just have a problem with Carlisle calling plays. He had a problem with calling plays, period. During their first several months together, Carlisle wanted to control who got the ball and when, where and how it happened. Kidd just wanted to play ball, believing he'd earned the right to figure out the who, when, where and how.
Kidd particularly hated when he'd push the ball up the floor, sniffing a good look for a teammate, only to have the opportunity evaporate owing to two or three teammates looking to the bench for a play call.
"I think they both respected each other," Mavs guard J.J. Barea said, "but they didn't agree too much."
The Rondo-Kidd comparisons have been made since the day the Mavs pulled the trigger on the blockbuster trade with the Boston Celtics. Owner Mark Cuban and president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson made a point to note how much Rondo reminded them of Kidd during the point guard's introductory press conference.
Nowitzki quickly incorporates Rondo into the conversation when asked about the Carlisle-Kidd dynamic.
"I think it took them a little while to get used to each other," Nowitzki said a few weeks ago. "Same with Rondo -- when to let the guard go, when to pull him back and call some plays."
The similarities are obvious. Like Kidd, Rondo arrived in Dallas as a point guard with two Finals trips, multiple assists titles, several All-Star appearances and dozens of triple-doubles on his resume, as well as a well-chronicled history of clashing with coaches.
Carlisle, however, discourages the comparison.
"It's just two totally different people and two totally different players," Carlisle said that night in his hotel suite. "I have full respect for what Rondo has done in this league. I have great respect for it, but it's apples and oranges to a very large degree. While there are similarities, there are way more differences."
Rondo is at a different stage of his career than Kidd was during his time with Carlisle. At 29, Rondo is hoping to sign a huge contract when he tests free agency for the first time this summer. In his mid- to late-30s, Kidd made the pursuit of his first ring a much higher priority than adding to his riches, determining that his best hope was to stick with Dirk in Dallas.
By that point of his career, Kidd had developed into a dangerous spot-up 3-point shooter, forcing defenses to respect him as a threat. Opponents remain happy to dare Rondo, a career 26.3 percent 3-point shooter, to fire away from the perimeter.
The biggest difference between Kidd and Rondo, at least in Carlisle's view, might be their pace preferences. Kidd convinced Carlisle to embrace a fast-paced style with few play calls. Rondo wanted to walk the ball up and call the plays.
"It's much easier to slow a point guard down than to have one speed up," Carlisle said. "That's why one of the axioms in basketball is that if you're going to have to play fast, you've got to commit to it early in training camp and it's got to become a habit. It's very difficult to just start playing fast in the middle of the year. Guys aren't conditioned for it physically or mentally. He's come to a situation where it's a very different style."
It was Rondo walking the ball up the court despite Carlisle's demands to push the pace -- as much as Rondo ignoring a play call from the bench -- that lit the coach's fuse that February night against the Raptors.
Unlike Rondo and Carlisle, Kidd and Carlisle clashed mostly behind closed doors.
And they built their relationship out of public view, too.
Kidd got a kick out of catching Carlisle swiping some prewrap from the trainer's room before games a few times. To this day, Kidd believes that Carlisle was taping his own ankles as if he were preparing to play, as he did during his NBA career as a reserve for three teams (the Celtics, Knicks and Nets) in five seasons.
"I think that just shows that he's all in," Kidd said.
Carlisle actually used the prewrap to prevent him from getting blisters on his heels that a certain pair of dress shoes had caused. But Carlisle admits that he didn't mind the perception of Kidd and the other players.
"I kind of like the fact that they view it that way," Carlisle said. "That's how I feel."
Eventually they fell into a habit of holding what Kidd calls "pow-wows" in the weight room. Carlisle would typically circle the room while the Mavs were working out, checking in with several players, before inevitably ending up in a one-on-one discussion with Kidd.
"The great thing, all along, all four years we were together, we were searching for the right recipe, but there was always a level of respect," Carlisle said. "There was never any bulls---. It was all straight ahead, we're coming at you with the truth and working to figure it out."
These conversations in the weight room were always calm, never contentious.
"They were great because we got to find out a lot about each other and what we were thinking in different moments," Kidd said. "Some of mine might have been way off the wall and he was like, 'Whoa, I never thought about that,' or I didn't know what he was thinking. We found that those talks became very healthy and they helped us.
"I think that's how the bond started."
It's also how Carlisle's offensive philosophy started to change. The coach learned as much from the player as the player did from the coach.
Kidd consistently stressed how much be believed the Mavs' offense needed to be free-flowing with play-calling used only when absolutely necessary. Over time, Kidd convinced Carlisle that Dallas was better served with a savvy, veteran point guard attempting to dictate the rhythm of the game instead of a coach trying to control it from the sideline.
"My approaches as a coach have migrated towards simplicity in many respects in large parts because of him," Carlisle said. "Now, we try not to call any plays. That's been part of my growth as a coach, just the understanding. The odd thing is now you try to explain to players why it's important not to call any plays."
And here's the best-kept secret of the Rondo and Carlisle story: They both raved about their relationship as recently as this month. Just as Kidd and Carlisle found a rhythm talking in the weight room, Rondo and Carlisle took to talking in the coach's office.
Carlisle said only a few days ago that he no longer considers Rondo's attitude an issue. "Very professional," is how Carlisle described his relationship with Rondo.
"I tell you what, talking to him has been one of the best parts of him being here," Carlisle said. "He's great to talk to. He listens. He looks you in the eye. He's thoughtful. Then he has a lot of important things on his mind that you need to hear. All that stuff has been good. It's been good, and getting it to work on the court is what it's all about."
Rondo spoke similarly recently: "I try to go up to him more on the sidelines and pick his brain, see what he's thinking and that we're on the same page," Rondo said after an early April win in Oklahoma City. "I [have] made suggestions and he listened right away, so it's not like he's, 'No, no, no, you can't do anything you suggest.' At times, everybody has to shut the" -- Rondo pauses for effect -- "hell up and let Coach talk. It's a thin line, but I think we're in a good groove as far as our dialogue and our communication is getting better."
Rondo said Carlisle's resume, highlighted by the 2011 title won with Kidd as his point guard, commands respect. Rondo also appreciated what he calls Carlisle's "pure heart," a desire to win that isn't clouded by personal pride or any individual agendas.
None of that necessarily made it any easier for Rondo to stomach some of Carlisle's most blunt feedback.
"No, if I don't like to hear it, I don't like to hear it," Rondo said, punctuating the thought with a laugh. "But he's a man. We're all men in the locker room. Obviously, he's the head coach. There's a line of respect. But he's not a coach that really throws his weight around a lot or talks and speaks with his chest out. He listens more than I think people would give him credit for."
A couple of hours before tipoff at the Bradley Center on an early December night, coaches Carlisle and Kidd warmly greet each other at midcourt, exchanging enthusiastic handshakes and quick hugs. Within seconds, Kidd is laughing.
That's typically the way it goes when they meet these days, whether it's in an arena before their twice-a-season battles, at various NBA events or on a golf course for the rounds they'll play together once in a while during the summer.
"When I see him now, I think he's funny," Kidd says. "As a player in the moment, I didn't think he was funny."
No, warm and fuzzy would definitely not be the way to describe the dynamic between this pair during their days together in Dallas. Their friendship, and in large part the Mavs' 2011 title, is the fruit borne from that friction.
"Friendships ultimately happen and materialize when they're supposed to," Carlisle said. "I consider Jason Kidd a close friend now. When we were working together, it was a business relationship.
"He's a guy that I really consider to be a special friend now. It's a culmination of many years of us struggling and trying to figure out how to get us to the top of the mountain. Then once you get there, it becomes a different thing."
That's the opportunity Carlisle hoped would come with Rondo, but that obviously won't happen now -- with the appearance that the team has trumped up Rondo's back injury as a way to hasten the end of one of the franchise's gravest personnel missteps.
"I understand that the announcement that's been made is going to have different interpretations," Carlisle says. "I am giving you our interpretation of it, and this is fact. From here, we're moving forward."