Just like any single game or playoff series involving the Cleveland Cavaliers, the two biggest matchup questions going into this Cavs/Celtics conference semifinal were, “Who’s going to guard LeBron?” and “How are they going to guard LeBron?”
Now that the series is tied up heading into Game 5, the focus has changed. If the Cavs are going to avoid being upset earlier than expected again, they need to figure out with whom and how they’re going to defend Rajon Rondo.
In the best all-purpose performance of any NBA player this postseason, Rondo put up 29 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists in yesterday’s Game 4, controlling the action all over the court and igniting a transition attack that left the supposed-to-be more athletic Cavs in the dust. Now, according to ESPN’s Peter May, LeBron himself has asked to take on the job of guarding Rondo from here on out:
If LeBron has any say in the matter, it could well happen. In fact, according to one courtside observer, James and Cleveland coach Mike Brown got into a heated discussion about whether James should cover Rondo at the critical moments of the fourth quarter. Brown ultimately decided against it, but that could change moving forward.
“I would love to,” James said after Rondo had eviscerated the Cavs with 29 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists. “It’s something we maybe should explore because Rondo is definitely dominating this series at the point guard position. For me, I don’t have a problem taking Rondo or guarding Rondo throughout the course of the game. If the coaching staff or the guys want me to do it, I will.”
He may have to. The Cavaliers have had no answer for Rondo, who is averaging 21.8 points, 13 assists and 8.3 rebounds in the 2-2 series. (Take away Game 3 and the numbers are 23, 14.7 and 9.3.) James takes pride in his defense and, he noted after Game 4, he had moved to guard Derrick Rose in the first-round series with the Bulls. There also was a memorable mano-a-mano switch-over to Miami’s Dwyane Wade during the regular season.
“When the opportunity does present itself, or if it does present itself, I would take the challenge,” James said of guarding Rondo.
When the Lakers were getting lit up by Russell Westbrook in their first-round series, it took Phil Jackson until Game 5 to finally yank Derek Fisher from that mismatch and hand the assignment to First Team All-Defensive staple Kobe Bryant. With Kobe keeping Westbrook somewhat in check, the Lakers swept the last two games of the series and are on the fast track to another NBA Finals.
LeBron made the All-Defensive First Team as well, but it was mainly on the strength of his highlight-reel blocks off the backboard and steals that lead to more highlight-reel dunks. He’s not particularly known as a lockdown 1-on-1 guy, but he’s done it before. His own defensive assignment, Paul Pierce, is averaging just 11.7 points on 32% shooting in this series.
Cleveland’s best athlete and defender at least deserves a crack at Rondo, seeing as Anthony Parker and Mo Williams haven’t been able to contain the 6-foot-1 speedster. And as far as who would guard Pierce if LeBron switches onto Rondo, that would likely be Parker. Although Pierce is theoretically Boston’s top offensive threat, AP would actually match up better with him than with the shifty Rondo. And it’s not like Parker is a bad defender. He’s just at the wrong end of a mismatch. LeBron is a physical mismatch for damn near everybody in the League, so let’s see how if can handle the Cavs’ biggest problem.
How do you think the Cavs should game plan for Rondo?