Heading into Game 2 of their Western Conference Semifinal matchup with the Houston Rockets, the Los Angeles Lakers knew that they needed a big performance.
Trailing 1-0 in the best-of-seven series, it was clear that someone aside from LeBron James and Anthony Davis would need to step up. The stars would do the heavy lifting but against an aggressive Rockets defense, someone else would be needed to relieve the pressure by making plays.
That came to be Rajon Rondo who took on the burden, or dare we say, Playoff Rondo.
Over the years, Rondo has made a habit of shining when the lights are at their brightest, as though the veteran has been saving his best performances just for the postseason. On Sunday night, in just his second game since the NBA season shut down in March, Rondo gave the Lakers the lift they needed to even the series with Houston.
In 29 minutes, Rondo notched 10 points, 9 assists and a whopping 5 steals with just 1 turnover and was a ridiculous +28. He looked spry on both ends of the floor, was cool under pressure when the game was on the line, and made plays when the Lakers needed them.
On one possession, as the Rockets surged in the third quarter to erase the Lakers’ 16-point halftime lead, Rondo picked up James Harden full-court, poked the ball away, and got the layup. In a quarter in which the Lakers’ scoring dried up while the Rockets hit a geyser, Rondo’s easy bucket felt like a turning point.
On multiple occasions, it was Rondo calling out the team’s defensive sets, keeping the Houston offense guessing about what the Lakers were going to throw at them. For a team like Houston, who uses precision passing and movements to find open threes, an ever-shifting defense can make it harder to find a rhythm.
When the game reached its most nerve-wracking moments, there was Rondo, settling his teammates down and providing the stability that only a veteran can. Leadership may be an intangible quality, but it the difference it made Sunday night was plain to see.
It’s not the kind of performance that we can expect to see from Rondo every time out at this stage of his career. This was his best game of the season, aside from perhaps his impressive performance on the road in Oklahoma City back in January in which he led a Lakers team missing both LeBron James and Anthony Davis to a win.
In Game 1, Rondo turned the ball over four times and looked out of sync, leading to criticism of head coach Frank Vogel for trusting his veteran guard and playing him 25 minutes in a losing effort despite his ineffectiveness.
In Game 2, Rondo rewarded Vogel for his faith in him. While Kyle Kuzma (13 points, 6 rebounds) and Markieff Morris (16 points, 4-of-5 from three) both made an impact, it was Rondo and his ability to force live-ball turnovers on one end while setting up teammates in scoring position on the other that stole the show.
Concerns still exist, as teams ignore Rondo on the offensive end by dropping his defender into the paint, knowing that Rondo isn’t much of a threat behind the arc. His defense, while excellent in Game 2, rated as the worst on the Lakers during the regular season, and his pound-the-rock style at the point guard position can often appear outdated.
That said, the playoffs are a different animal, and there is a historical precedent for Rondo’s play dramatically improving as the stakes get higher.
There’s no telling whether or not “Playoff Rondo” will be a consistent, game-in, game-out presence, but the important take away is that he still exists. Father Time has not yet robbed Rondo of his ability to step up his game in the postseason.
And for the Lakers, he showed up just in time.
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