Los Angeles Lakers fans - and the NBA's growing fanbase as a whole - were highly critical of the play of veteran guard Rajon Rondo during the regular season.
Although the Lakers had the Western Conference's best record for the majority of the season, any time they suffered a loss it became routine to come down on the supporting cast around superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Rondo always seemed to be one of the biggest recipients of the public's slander.
His regular-season numbers made him a worthy target - averaging 7.1 points, 5.0 assists, 3.0 rebounds and less than one steal while shooting 32.8% from 3-point range in 20 minutes per game isn't exactly a stat line deserving praise. But somewhere between the harsh comments and jokes, the keyboard warriors should have realized why Rondo is so valuable to Los Angeles.
There are 82-game players, and 16-game players - at this point in his career, Rajon Rondo is a 16-game beast.
A one-time NBA champion with an eye-popping playoff resume, it's not just a fallacy that Rondo raises his game in the postseason. He's been dubbed "Playoff Rondo" for a reason.
In terms of Player Efficiency Rating (PER), or "a measure of per-minute production standardized such that the league average is 15," per Basketball-Reference, Rondo has taken his play to another level in six of the eight the playoffs he's participated in. Take a look:
|Team||Year||Reg. Season PER||Playoff PER|
By now, you know how vital Rondo was to those deep playoff runs of the Celtics' Big 3 era. Boston fans remember all too well of his performance in the first round of the playoffs in 2017 as a member of the Chicago Bulls, too.
If not for a thumb injury just like the one suffered this season prior to the NBA's restart, Rondo looked poised to lead the No. 8 seed Bulls to an upset over the No.1 Celtics, leading 2-0 in the series with a pair of wins on the road in Boston.
Playoff Rondo was activated yet again in 2018 when the New Orleans Pelicans pulled off a four-game sweep of the higher-seeded Portland Trail Blazers in the first round. He was incredible on both sides of the ball in that series, helping to lock down Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum while averaging a playoff-leading 12.2 assists per game for the postseason.
Now in just five games with the Lakers, we're seeing that same version of Rondo again.
Averaging 10.6 points, 7.0 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game, Rondo has upped each aforementioned stat compared to his regular-season output. Even more impressive, he's shooting 44.4% from beyond the arc - well above his regular-season conversion rate (or any conversion rate of his career, really) - and owns an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.69, one of the best of the 2020 NBA Playoffs.
But his impact goes well beyond the stats in front of you.
Rondo's presence takes a great deal of pressure off of LeBron as a playmaker, allowing the superstar to look to score off-ball as a cutter or shooter from time-to-time - a nightmare for opposing defences.
Not even just from an actual scoring point-of-view either. The attention that James draws frees up so much room for Rondo to work with to find other teammates. See for yourself:
This clip from Game 2 shows James barely even setting a screen on Rondo. Just having those two guys working on one side of the floor commands the attention of all five Rockets defenders. Rondo utilizes that to his advantage without even using LeBron's "screen", attacking Houston's defence to find a wide open Markieff Morris for 3.
In Game 4, we saw that again as Rondo had Austin Rivers in the post while the Lakers ran a set of screens (I use that term loosely) for James. Even with LeBron going through the motions toward Rondo on the perimeter, it required the Rockets' attention while Morris cuts backdoor for an easy two.
In Game 3, you see something very similar in another (barely) screen, this time from Davis.
With all eyes on Rondo and AD, no one picked up the cutting Kyle Kuzma for a beautiful pass and finish.
If the opposing team is too focused on LeBron or Davis and fall asleep for even a half of a second, Rondo will exploit that and turn it into an easy bucket for his teammates. When he's at the helm of the offence, every player on the floor becomes that much more dangerous because of how surgical he can be.
And while he's years removed from the four-time All-Defensive Team player he once was, Rondo is still willing to take on tough defensive assignments come playoff time. It's likely the Lakers will ask him to do so in guarding Jamal Murray at times in the Western Conference Finals, something you'd consider a tall task for the elder statesmen - until we saw he did a decent job on the likes of James Harden and Russell Westbrook.
"It's real. Playoff Rondo is real," his teammate Davis stated after the Lakers took a 2-1 series lead in the Semifinals. "His intensity picks up, he wants to guard the best perimeter guy; you saw he guards James (Harden) and Russ (Westbrook) sometimes. He wants to facilitate on the floor, he's shooting the ball very well, making the right passes. His IQ is on another level."
Davis is also seeing some of the same things mentioned above on the floor in real-time.
"We've got to two best IQ guys in the game with him and LeBron on the floor at the same time, which is tough for defences. Playoff Rondo is real and he showed up tonight."
This is why they re-signed him this past offseason in the first place... the Lakers knew Playoff Rondo would become a key piece that helps their pursuit for their first NBA title since 2010. This is just the first opportunity they've had to watch it come to fruition.
Los Angeles is going to need him to keep his game elevated if they're going to fend off a relentless Denver Nuggets team to reach the NBA Finals.
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