Editor’s note: This is the Wednesday, Sept. 9 edition of the Purple & Bold Lakers newsletter from reporter Kyle Goon, who is among the few reporters with a credential inside the NBA bubble. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — He doesn’t always arrive on time, so he’s not like Santa Claus. But he’s not so rarely glimpsed as Bigfoot.
So it’s hard to find the perfect match among mythic characters for Playoff Rondo — most importantly because he’s not mythical at all.
The side of Rajon Rondo the Lakers have wanted to see the most has come out in round two of these playoffs against the Houston Rockets. In Game 3, he had 21 points and nine assists, but those numbers don’t truly illustrate the leap he’s taken from being a bit player averaging 7.1 points and 5.0 assists this season — at many points not looking playable.
Since Rondo has been a Laker, there’s been a disconnect between how teammates and coaches glowingly measure his impact next to that of LeBron James, and how fans see an aging point guard who has rarely looked at his All-Star level. In the last two games, Rondo has started to bridge that gap.
“It’s real: Playoff Rondo is real,” Anthony Davis said. “His intensity picks up, he wants to guard the best perimeter guy. We see he guards James and Russ sometimes, he wants to… on the floor he’s shooting the ball very well, making the right passes, so his IQ is on another level.”
Historically, Rondo has distaste when people point out the difference between his regular season persona and who he is in the playoffs. But there’s a definitive gulf: His scoring, assists and net rating all rise in his playoff career versus his regular season career. He’s tied for fourth on the postseason triple-doubles list (10), and two of the four guys ahead of him are on the Lakers sideline.
But to really appreciate Playoff Rondo, you have to examine where he really shines. Looking at his Game 3 dimes, it’s telling to see how they came: off verticality, like the two times Davis spun off of his man, and Rondo delivered a picture perfect lay-up. They also came on cuts, like a bounce pass to a driving Kyle Kuzma in the fourth quarter that was close to a clinching basket.
These are advantages the Lakers have on the Rockets, size and the ability to rip into the lane, that weren’t being leveraged in Game 1, Rondo’s first game back in six months. His passing has helped make those advantages manifest, giving the Lakers’ length a sense of purpose that can win games. In a game that is decided in flashes, in tiny creases of space and time that can be the difference between a basket and having your shot blocked into the sun, Rondo can play physically and mentally at full speed.
It’s those kinds of adjustments that tortured James for years in Eastern Conference battles, as two of basketball’s best on-court minds would get in drawn out chess matches that left each other battered and one of them eliminated. Now, they find themselves aligned. And while James is no stranger to the bland complement of a teammate, his voice rang of authenticity when he talked about respect for Rondo’s head for the game and how he trusts him in his “foxhole.”
Breaking down film for flaws is a necessary task, James said, but a lot of people in the NBA can recognize what went wrong on tape after the fact. Real-time changes — when you can still affect the outcome — is much more rare and precious.
“But being able to make adjustments on the fly and being able to see how defenses are playing, and being able to see how the game is being played and being able to see how the flow of the game is being played — there’s not many guys that can do that in our league and in the postseason, it’s gigantic. And having ‘Do on your side definitely helps.”
If you understand how James views his own mind, you understand how tremendous of a compliment that really is.
It’s very possible the Lakers could have been playing this series without Rondo, who fractured his thumb in July, days after arriving in the bubble. Rondo’s hands are notoriously finicky, and he’s had at least three hand injuries since signing with the Lakers in 2018.
“It was very frustrating, like any injury or setback, but in my career, 14 years, gonna have those,” he said. “And everything happens for a reason, and obviously the man upstairs is talking to me, and I had to be still for another moment.”
Being “still” however is not a sterling Rondo trait. After he underwent surgery to fix his thumb, he thrust himself into rehab. It’s not entirely clear why, but Rondo came to Orlando to train for a week with Lakers executive Kurt Rambis as he prepared to re-enter the bubble — perhaps the physical closeness to the team mattered. When reporters were able to watch him again in practice, even though he was still working on his conditioning it was clear he was in tremendous physical shape.
Mental proximity also played a key role. Rondo was in daily coaching calls, and he stayed in text contact with his teammates. The world has digitally evolved to accommodate virtual meetings, and Rondo’s own words: “I was able to stay locked in with those guys through Zoom.”
It shouldn’t be lost here that Rondo is a frequent name discussed among players who might one day be head coaches, if that is something he wants to do one day (admittedly Rondo’s motivations can be tough to read). That level of daily involvement helped him stay invested with the Lakers more closely.
But at his heart, Rondo is a ravenous competitor. He’s a legendary Connect 4 player, and within the Lakers’ walls, he’s one of the most avid card players — Jared Dudley said (perhaps jokingly) that Rondo cheats. He’s the same way on the court, whether it’s behind the closed doors of practice or absolutely in his element in a playoff series where he has the mental edge to win the game in its margins.
James added some sentiments on playing this well so late in his career that could also apply to Rondo, who is 34.
“One, we don’t know how many opportunities we’re going to get at this level,” he said. “Two, our league kind of tries to weed guys like us in our later years out of the league. And you see it a lot, guys in their 30s, mid-30s, (teams) kind of try to stray away from the vets and things of that nature, so we take — that’s a little pride as well. And then three, some people was built for this moment and some people were not. And I just think that when you’ve been in the process and you’ve been building your mind and your body and your soul for the postseason, no matter the circumstances, no matter the environment, then you’re able to rise.”
Rondo is a playoff riser, whether those playoffs are in April or in September. Even if he reverts for a game or two to his earlier form, it’s now a lot easier to understand why the Lakers were willing to take the gamble of signing him for a second year after a disastrous first campaign: Some guys are just built for this.
That’s come out in prime match-ups. It’s telling that one of Rondo’s best regular season wins this year was in Oklahoma City against Chris Paul, one of his longtime league rivals in a feud that has broken out into fisticuffs. Without James and Davis, the Lakers stomped the Thunder back in January, thanks much in part to Rondo at the dials.
A late fourth-quarter steal on James Harden helped seal the Lakers’ win, the second time in as many games that Rondo made a steal in the fourth quarter that felt like it deflated Houston. He said it wasn’t as much about the moment as the overall match-up with Harden, which he is eager to seek out even though much of his effort this season has indicated he’s on the decline.
“I love competing against the best,” he said. “And right now, in our game, he’s arguably the best two guard of my time, my era. So each time I get a chance to match up with him, I look forward, along with Russ. And it’s been fun. Like I said the best thing about this experience is being able to compete at a high level, getting to play each other over and over again. It’s a chess match. We make adjustments, they make adjustments, and that’s what I thrive off of and I love.”
– Kyle Goon, with a special assist from Mirjam Swanson
Editor’s note: Thanks for reading the Purple & Bold Lakers newsletter from reporter Kyle Goon, who is among the few reporters with a credential inside the NBA bubble. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.