If you have followed the NBA for awhile, you have seen Rajon Rondo play in a ton of playoff games. By now, you would also understand that “Playoff Rondo” is a real thing and the Portland Trail Blazers found that out the hard way back in April.
Last year, Rondo was a member of the New Orleans Pelicans, who went into Portland and took the first two games of their first round playoff series on the road before returning back home to finish the sweep. It was a first round upset that saw Rondo elevate his game against one of the top backcourt duos in the league in Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
Well, as luck would have it, Rondo’s first time suiting up in purple and gold for the Los Angeles Lakers will be against that same duo in Portland to tip-off the 2018-19 season. So before we move forward with the upcoming season for the Lakers, let’s take a look back at that first round playoff series and break down just how Rondo found success against an elite backcourt.
Game 1: Pelicans 97, Blazers 95.
This was a classic Rondo performance and a vintage Rondo stat line. He scored just six points on 3-of-9 shooting, but dished out 17 assists and snatched eight rebounds in 39 minutes.
Defensively, the Pelicans limited Lillard to 18 points on 6-of-23 shooting and McCollum to 19 points on 7-of-18 shooting, although Jrue Holiday was the driving force behind that.
Anthony Davis credited Rondo’s veteran presence and leadership after the game in his postgame interview stating that “Playoff Rondo” was the guy that calmed the team down each time Portland made a run. Perhaps that veteran leadership was a key reason for the Lakers’ interest in him as a free agent this past summer.
So, how exactly was Rondo able to help his team steal the opening game of the series on the road? Let’s take a look.
Rondo did an excellent job in this game understanding when Portland either switched into a disadvantageous matchup or a crossmatch in transition. Here are a couple of examples:
Jusuf Nurkic is jogging back on this play while Anthony Davis has released out after contesting the shot attempt, forcing Al-Farouq Aminu to pick him up in transition. Davis misses a shot at the rim before getting the ball knocked away (Rondo would hit Davis on a lob for a dunk a few seconds later), but this is good recognition by Rondo to see Nurkic trailing the play and Davis sealing a smaller defender.
On this play, Rondo sees Pat Connaughton switched onto Davis. Rondo waits until McCollum gives a soft commit to stopping the ball before lobbing it over the top of a smaller defender in Connaughton. This results in an easy two points for the Pelicans. Of course, Davis is a mismatch for anyone in the league, but so is LeBron James. So you can expect that when Rondo sees James in a position to attack a mismatch, he’ll get LeBron the ball.
Rondo does a nice job of keeping things simple here. Holiday is posting up a smaller defender in Shabazz Napier. Not only does Rondo notice this matchup, but he throws an accurate entry pass to Holiday’s left shoulder as Napier tries to step in front. This leads to a layup plus the foul for Holiday.
Finding shooters in transition
Rondo and Nikola Mirotic connected for three big threes during the second and third quarter that really helped the Pelicans create some separation. All three of these were Rondo finding Mirotic in transition with nobody picking up the shooter. Perhaps this a role we could see Kyle Kuzma fill on Thursday if Portland doesn’t pick up in transition.
Creating transition opportunities
Rondo did an excellent job either snatching defensive rebounds or making himself easily available to his teammates so that the Pelicans could push the tempo. This lead to a number of favorable scoring situations and some great looks on the run.
This is simply a great hustle play by Rondo. He covers a lot of ground in a flash to beat everyone to the ball and grab this rebound and it leads to an easy two points on the other end. Perhaps this is merely a “playoff Rondo” play that we might not see during the regular season, but this is a winning play.
Rondo doesn’t get the rebound here, but notice how he is in the perfect spot for Davis to get him the basketball so they can push it up the floor. Rondo immediately finds E’Twaun Moore ahead of the pack for an easy bucket. Playoff basketball is often times played at a slower pace, so creating these scoring opportunities can be key. The Lakers want to play fast. If Rondo can replicate the success New Orleans had in this game by controlling the tempo, the Lakers may have chances to hit Portland’s defense before they can get set.
Lillard is frustrated after another missed shot, which leads him to try and force a turnover immediately after the rebound instead of getting back on defense. He then jogs back, allowing Holiday to get out in front of him. Rondo spots this and simply hits Holiday with some momentum going towards the basket, leaving Ed Davis on an island to defend by himself. Holiday goes right around him for two more points in the paint.
Exploiting pick-and-roll drop coverage
Defenses justifiably do not respect Rondo as a jump shooter. It certainly is not a strength of his game and he typically doesn’t try to force it to become one. Naturally, defenses will keep their bigs back towards the paint when Rondo utilizes a high ball screen. Even with the extra space, Rondo found ways to make plays out of simple pick-and-roll action.
The Pelicans like to run Spain action and here it gets Rondo a layup. Spain is essentially a high screen and roll with a back pick for the roll man. You can see Moore come in and set the back pick for Davis as he is rolling to the basket. Rondo gets going downhill and gets by everyone for the layup. The Lakers showed a variation of this set in preseason play this year, so it could be something to keep an eye on.
A few minutes later, the Pelicans come right back to the same action. This time, Ed Davis is worried about the back pick while McCollum is unsure where to go and doesn’t even see Davis rolling to the rim for the lob. Rondo does an excellent job remaining patient here and making Davis commit defensively, giving him a wide open window to lob it up for the jam.
Another way to attack this coverage is with just pure speed. Nurkic is in the game and he has considerably slow foot speed, mostly due to his size. Rondo takes full advantage of it here and goes right by Nurkic, who just looks lost on the play. I would expect Rondo to see similar pick-and-roll coverage on Thursday night against a Blazers team that is built similarly to last year’s roster.
Okay, so you might look at this clip and say, “So what? Rondo got a hockey assist. This was a great read and pass by Mirotic.” While that is all certainly true, remember those clips above of Rondo hitting Mirotic in transition for a few big threes? Those three point makes set this play up. As Mirotic catches the ball, both Portland defenders leave the best player on the floor wide open to contest what appears to be an open three. Mirotic makes a great pass and passes up a good shot for a great one. This stems from those big transition threes by Mirotic earlier in the game, which all started from Rondo pushing the ball ahead to his shooter in rhythm to help get him going.
Even though all of these clips are from game one, these were the common themes throughout the series in terms of Rondo being effective on the offensive end. He did an excellent job controlling the pace and speeding up the tempo of the game, pushing the ball ahead, finding cutters and shooters, noticing mismatches and attacking drop coverage.
On defense, New Orleans appeared to try and hide Rondo and keep him off of Lillard and McCollum as much as they could. They mixed up coverages, throwing in some blitzes and traps in their pick and roll coverage, which seemed to give the two Portland guards some problems.
Will the Lakers see this version of Rondo in Thursday’s opener? We’ll find out. Maybe not because it is just the first game of the regular season and not postseason play. But Rondo showed in that playoff series that he can find offensive success against these Blazers.
Here were Rondo’s numbers for the other three games of the series:
Game 2: 16 points (6-11 shooting), nine assists and 10 rebounds in 39 minutes.
Game 3: 16 points (7-12 shooting), 11 assists, five rebounds and two steals in 28 minutes.
Game 4: 7 points (3-7 shooting), 16 assists, seven rebounds in 35 minutes.
That put Rondo’s overall line for the series at 11.3 points, 13.3 assists and 7.5 rebounds in 35.3 minutes per game. Rondo elevated his game in the postseason like he seems to generally do. He won’t have Davis or Holiday with him on Thursday. Instead he will have a new cast around him, led by LeBron.
Perhaps the Lakers can follow a similar formula by getting some minutes for Rondo, James and Lonzo Ball to share the court together. It would give the Lakers multiple playmakers that can all push the ball ahead and really impact the pace and flow of the game.
Whatever strategy the Lakers have planned, they will have to execute at a high level to earn an opening night road win against a good team in a tough environment.
You can follow this author on Twitter at @garykester.