After Game 1 of the Rockets-Lakers series I wrote about three adjustments the Lakers should make going forward to take control of the series. I was very wrong about two of those — although I will at least credit myself for noting that it was more important to take Eric Gordon out of rhythm than Russell Westbrook.
I felt the Lakers were not going to have a lot of success trying to out-small ball the Rockets, which has clearly not been the case over the last two games. Namely because of my other point, which was they needed to limit the minutes in which Rajon Rondo and LeBron James shared the floor because of the spacing nightmare it would create and that he was best used as the primary ball-handler for the non-LeBron minutes given their lack of other facilitators.
This could not have been more incorrect thus far.
Through two games since writing that, Rajon Rondo has been the third best player for the Lakers, playing critical minutes both with and without James on the floor in helping L.A. take a 2-1 series lead. In Game 3, he was nothing short of sensational, scoring 21 points and handing out nine assists in 30 minutes of play off of the bench, and, maybe most shockingly, was his efficiency shooting the ball as he was 8-of-11 from the field and 3-of-5 from three-point range.
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) September 9, 2020
Beyond questions about Rondo’s viability given his play during the regular season, my main concern was him trying to work his way back into rhythm in the midst of this very competitive series, and the possibility that losing Rondo minutes because of rust could cost them games. Coming off of an injury and a six-month layoff from real basketball, he’s not only found a rhythm, but is playing with more assertiveness and a better pace than he did at any point this season.
Playoff Rondo has been a thing for awhile now, but we hadn’t seen that guy in action in some time and there was a genuine concern as to whether he still had that level of play in him. It’s clear now that he does and that he still is capable of stepping up and being more decisive and aggressive with the ball in his hands. Rondo’s vision and passing was the expected positive he could bring to a Lakers team in dire need of someone else other than LeBron James who can survey the floor, pick out the right pass, and make it on time and on target. The question was whether he could do the other things to avoid being a net negative, like provide quality defense and not ruin their spacing on offense.
In recent years, the perception of Rondo’s defensive impact has surpassed what he’s actually provided on the floor, but Houston has actually offered a pretty good matchup for him. He’s still capable of being the on-ball pest that was his calling card for years in Boston, but it has to be in short bursts. The Lakers have utilized Rondo as a change of pace defender for James Harden, as they rotate who takes on the former MVP as the primary defender, picking him up 94-feet and just generally trying to make him work at all times to even get the basketball. Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Alex Caruso have all taken that assignment on in a rotation, as they try to keep fresh legs on Harden while throwing different looks at him.
When it’s not Rondo’s time to guard Harden, he can either sink off of Russell Westbrook, daring him to shoot and simply trying to be in the way of a Russ drive, or get a welcome breather in the form of lurking around the perimeter on one of the various spot-up shooters the Rockets employ. Houston’s lack of player movement benefits Rondo in this case as he works his way back, and he’s still capable of those bursts of energy to make life miserable for a ball-handler.
On offense, the Lakers can’t rely on Rondo to hit 60 percent of his three-pointers going forward, but every made Rondo three is a little bit of found money — and if Houston is going to not even close out on him, treating him like Lu Dort, those are still decent shots. More important is what he’s done off of the dribble against the Houston defense. Rondo has long been frustrating in his occasional refusal to take layup attempts at the rim due to his instinct at all times to try and pass the ball. However, he’s been more assertive in creating his own shots the last two games, taking opportunities at the rim when they present themselves rather than circling under the basket and pulling the ball back out. That approach is so important for this Lakers offense because it is just a different dynamic.
They don’t have anyone else other than LeBron James who can put the ball on the floor and get to the basket from the perimeter. Anthony Davis needs someone to get him the ball in his spots to be at his best. Alex Caruso isn’t a super effective offensive player in general, and the fewer Dion Waiters minutes you need, the better. Everyone else is a spot-up shooter first, with Kyle Kuzma likewise being best when given the ball on the move, already cutting to the basket. Rondo isn’t as quick as he once was, but he’s broken down this Houston defense on a number of occasions and the Rockets are never going to really send help at a Rondo drive, knowing his greatest danger is as a facilitator. As such, him taking those looks at the rim is so important to his effectiveness, and thus far he’s been very good at that.
As for the passing, you can see it in the first play from the highlight package above. There’s not another player on the Lakers other than LeBron that is capable of seeing and making that lob pass to Anthony Davis — or the entry pass over the top to LeBron as he was being fronted. Getting some easy looks for Davis and James is the biggest value to having Rondo on the court. Those two often have to work really hard, particularly James, to create offense. Just having someone that can create for them and set them up for an easy basket here or there alleviates some pressure and makes life a bit easier. Rondo can still do that, and even if the shots aren’t falling, as long as he’s willing to make on time and on target passes, he can help this team.
I don’t expect Rondo to average 21 and 9 the rest of the way in this series, but I must offer my sincerest apologies to the legend of Playoff Rondo. The Lakers need him, and that may be an indictment of this roster’s construction, but for now he’s played spectacular basketball and looks like a different player than we’ve seen since he joined Los Angeles. Whether he can keep this level of play up as the postseason wears on, we’ll have to wait and see, but for now, it’s worth enjoying watching him turn back the clock a bit. As improbable as it would’ve seemed a week ago, he’s thoroughly outplayed Russell Westbrook in this series, and that’s something Houston simply has no chance to overcome if it continues.