The Los Angeles Lakers suffered a frustrating and concerning loss in game one of their second-round series against the Houston Rockets on Friday. The major story since the conclusion of the game has been Rajon Rondo. The point guard appeared in a game for the first time since March and immediately received his regular burst of minutes and as most people who watched the game would tell you, did not perform well.
Rondo recorded eight points and four assists in his first postseason action with the Lakers but also turned the ball over four times and was routinely beaten defensively. His timing seemed to be off, as expected after a six-month layoff, and as usual, opponents did not guard him at the 3-point line and crowded the paint instead.
Still, Rondo’s teammates and coaches came to his defense following the game and insisted that he is a crucial part of the team’s rotation. Lakers star Anthony Davis specified that Rondo’s ability to run the offense gives LeBron James a break and allows him to play as more of a scorer and finisher than a true point guard:
I asked AD what the challenges are for a big when having to adjust to having a playmaker like Rondo back in the lineup after such a long layoff. He didn't really answer the exact question, but his remarks were illustrative of why he and LeBron like Rondo out there. pic.twitter.com/8ZdU0MOoR0
— Harrison Faigen (@hmfaigen) September 5, 2020
In a sense, yes, what Rondo gives the Lakers that few other players on the roster do is a true point guard. He can run pick and rolls and pick out correct passes but that also comes at major costs. He is not the floor general he was in his younger days and is susceptible to silly turnovers that put the Lakers in awful positions. The Rockets, for example, made the Lakers pay all night with 27 points off the Lakers’ 15 turnovers. More importantly, having Rondo on the floor effectively adds an extra defender in the paint that crowds that area against James or Davis drives. Even when Rondo is hitting his shots from deep – he made two of five attempts on Friday – opposing teams do not respect his shooting ability. If anything, that forces James and Davis to work harder to get good shots against a set defense.
This puts the Lakers at a dilemma that they don’t seem to be willing to fix by outright benching Rondo out of the rotation. The midway point solution seems to be to at least only play Rondo when James is on the bench, allowing him free reign to run the offense alongside Davis whom he has better chemistry with. It’s not a perfect measure, but Rondo and James played just over 13 minutes together in game one in which the Lakers were outscored by 10. That sort of rate is not a good sign for that pairing and it’s a death wish if the point guard is to play these types of minutes.
Of course, it’s hard to take too much away from Frank Vogel’s usage of Rondo in game one if only due to Alex Caruso’s foul trouble. It seems incredibly clear that Caruso is the better option in general and especially with James (that pairing was a more respectable minus three in just over eight minutes of action) due to his cutting ability and his defense. The shooting is an added bonus if he is hitting from deep and Caruso does not dominate the ball and stagnate the offense the way Rondo does.
I don’t say all of this to fault Rondo for the Lakers’ loss on Friday. There were many issues that plagued the team that have to be fixed ahead of Sunday’s re-match and pinning all of them on one player is reductive. But we have seen all year that Rondo is not the player that Vogel, Davis and James insist he is. Tough decisions have to be made in the postseason and it’s on Vogel to shorten his rotation and only play the players that are giving you positive contributions. The Rockets are far too good of a team to mess around with.