Rajon Rondo’s Kryptonite: The Staples Center

By: 06.04.10

Rajon Rondo (photo. Gary Land)

Coming into the Game 1 last night, Rajon Rondo was supposed to be the Boston Celtics’ greatest strength. His playoff numbers were off the charts through the first three rounds, 16.7 points and 10.0 assists a game. People were throwing him into the mix with Chris Paul and Deron Williams as the best point guard in the League. On broadcasts, Jeff Van Gundy was repeatedly saying no single player in the playoffs was having a greater overall impact than the Celtics’ point man. Yet, continuing an unusual trend since the 2008 NBA Finals, Rondo was extremely timid once stepping into the Staples Center.

Even though he had some light back spasms against Orlando and admitted he wasn’t 100 percent heading into the Finals, it begs the question: is L.A. playing Rondo differently than everyone else? Let’s break it down.

Just as was expected out of Phil Jackson, Kobe Bryant started the night guarding Rondo. This is nothing new in this matchup. Since Game 3 of the 2008 Finals, the 8-time All-NBA Defensive First Teamer has checked the point guard in an effort to save his legs. Ray Allen is an especially tough match-up for Bryant because of his off-ball movement and the hard screens that are set for him by the Boston big men.

Bryant may be one of the League’s best on-ball defenders when he gets involved in the matchup, but in this instance, he is better served roaming on defense and providing help on the three future Hall of Famers.

Game 1 saw Rondo produce a solid line of 13 points, 6 rebounds and 8 assists. Not bad, but far short of what Boston fans expected out of him after the way he abused Mo Williams, Jameer Nelson and anyone else who played him in the last two rounds.

In those rounds, much of Rondo’s success came off high screen and rolls with either Rasheed Wallace or Kevin Garnett. Wallace and Garnett are both outstanding jump shooters and popped off the pick 90 percent of the time. This allowed Rondo to either get a switch onto a big man or have a step on his defender. Once getting into the lane, he was either hitting floaters or more often, threading crisp passes to teammates for layups.

However, there are a few key differences in the way the Lakers’ play this. First of all, Bryant gives Rondo’s jumper no respect whatsoever and doesn’t body up until Rondo is in the paint. It’s a different look – Williams and Nelson often met him at the three-point line – and causes hesitation on the young point guard’s part. Also, the Cavs and Magic sport the ideal power forwards for Rondo to expose. Both Antawn Jamison and Rashard Lewis are 6-9 and slight for the position. In the lane, Rondo didn’t have trouble getting shots over them and that went for the rest of his teammates, especially Big Baby Davis, once he got them the ball.

The Lakers are the complete opposite with their huge frontline of Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom.

Another key component of both Rondo’s game and the C’s attack are his baseline drives that typically yield kick outs and open threes for Paul Pierce, Allen and Wallace. But the Lakers are way too long for those to work. Throughout Game 1, Rondo found himself stuck on the baseline, forcing up tough reverses that were blocked numerous times by Odom and Gasol.

Cleveland and Orlando combined to have one real shot-blocker meeting Rondo at the rim. When L.A.’s bigs are emotionally involved, they alone have three. Also, the Lakers have the most physical backcourt in the entire league with Derek Fisher, Bryant and Ron Artest.

Also, Boston is especially dangerous in the open court because of Rondo’s vision and speed. He has the shiftiness to get all the way to the rim, but is often looking for open teammates. At home, this is lethal and Boston thrives off Rondo’s cross-court transition finds, constantly getting Pierce and Allen open threes.

In Game 1, the Celtics were just 1-10 from the arc. Part of the Celtics lack of a transition game was because of the Lakers glass dominance, 42-31. The other part was the fluidity of L.A.’s offense: no quick threes or off-balance shots led to 48 percent shooting. It effectively killed any break opportunities for Rondo. The Celtics had only five fast break points.

These schemes worked against Rondo in L.A. during the 2008 Finals when he was a non-factor during the middle games. Overall, in his last six visits to the Staples Center, Rondo is averaging a pedestrian 9.8 points and 6.7 assists on 39% shooting. In Game 1, his plus/minus ratio was the worst of any player at -17.

For his opportunities to improve in Game 2, Boston must spread the floor better. Last night with Jesus in foul trouble throughout, Tony Allen played 17 significant minutes. As a team, the visitors shot just 43 percent for the game. It will be interesting to see what Doc Rivers decides to do about that. It’s increasingly obvious the Celtics can’t play numerous guys who can’t hit perimeter shots like Tony Allen and Kendrick Perkins. There was no room in Game 1 for Rondo to create. Because of this, expect to see more Wallace as the series goes along.

Obviously he’s improving and is a different guy than he was as a second-year player and even last year. And although he momentarily seemed gimpy after a collision with Artest, the back spasms don’t seem to be a huge cause for concern with Rondo. But, Boston needs a reversal of aggression from him in Game 2 if they hope to win this series.

What do you think?

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