Published On: Wed, Apr 18th, 2018

'Playoff Rondo' is exactly who the Pelicans need right now

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Rajon Rondo is the closest thing the NBA has to a living folk hero.

Forged in the crucible of the Boston Celtics‘ veteran-laden locker room in the latter half of the 2010s, and then left for dead after his embarrassingly short and ill-fated tenure with the Dallas Mavericks in 2014-15, Rondo has roamed the league as a basketball nomad these past three seasons, taking shelter for short spurts in Sacramento, Chicago, and now New Orleans.

But in spite of his steady decline, the legend of “Playoff Rondo” persists, even if the modern reality isn’t quite as flashy as the myth.

Playoff Rondo – as we know him today – was born in spring of 2008.

The spark-plug floor general immediately jelled with the Celtics’ Hall of Fame-bound triumvirate of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen. Despite being just 22 years old, Rondo played with the cantankerous edge of an irritated chupacabra and started all 26 playoff games, culminating with the franchise’s 17th championship.

The Celtics came close to title No. 18, but Garnett’s injuries derailed a potential back-to-back bid and the team fell just five points short in Game 7 against the Los Angeles Lakers in 2010. Rondo played a major role in both of those playoff runs, while leading Boston in minutes per game.

Then, with the aging Celtics core on its last legs, Rondo dragged the team through a seven-game bloodbath against LeBron James and Dwyane Wade‘s near-dynastic Miami Heat in 2012. Playing at the peak of his powers, he averaged 20.9 points 11.3 assists, 6.9 rebounds, and 1.9 steals per game.

Last spring, it was once again Rondo who emerged to lead Jimmy Butler, Wade, and the poorly constructed Chicago Bulls to a 2-0 series lead against his former team, stealing both wins on the top-seeded Celtics’ home court, no less. But after Rondo was ruled out with a broken thumb for Game 3 onward, the Bulls were swept away in six. The team’s immediate reversal of fortune lent credence to the Playoff Rondo myth.

This season has been marked by a decidedly different tone. For the first time since the late-aughts, Rondo is far from the best player on the floor at any given time. A decade after his breakout title run, he finds himself once again on the outside of his team’s Big Three.

Anthony Davis is (deservedly) a dark-horse MVP candidate. Potential All-Defensive selection Jrue Holiday has reminded everyone how important he is when healthy. And DeMarcus Cousins, Rondo’s old running mate from his year with the Kings, suffered a torn Achilles tendon in late January, but had been well on his way to an All-NBA selection of his own.

So, to live up to his modest $3.3-million contract this season, all Rondo had to do was provide defensive depth on the perimeter and keep feeding the ball to Davis (and pre-injury Cousins) whenever Holiday took a breather.

But through two playoff games – both road wins – over the Portland Trail Blazers, Rondo’s steady two-way impact has gone above and beyond those expectations:

R. RONDO Game 1 Game 2
Pts 6 16
Ast 17 9
Reb 8 10
Stl 1 0
+/- -4 +17

As is usually the case with the uniquely gifted – and flawed – guard, Rondo’s impact requires a deeper look beyond the box score.

For instance, it would be easy to point to Rondo’s Game 1 plus-minus as an indication that his output didn’t necessarily result in overall team success. That would align with the regular-season data, which plainly states that New Orleans performed better with him on the bench.

The Trail Blazers, however, are proving to be the perfect matchup for Rondo’s unique skill set. His net differential (the difference between his on-court and off-court net rating) is at 9.8 points per 100 possessions – far better than his regular-season mark.

It’s obvious what Rondo brings to the offense against a small Blazers lineup. With the ball in his hands, all it takes is an inch of daylight for Davis to twist free and corral the guard’s heat-seeking lobs:

However, a clean lob to Davis is a pretty, pretty high-efficiency look that’s also been working for Holiday and E’Twaun Moore in this series. Rondo has to bring something else to stand out. And he has.

Crucially, Rondo has demonstrated he’s still more than capable of making the right pass, leveraging Davis’ gravity around the hoop to brutalize the Blazers’ defense if they help away from shooters.

“If you’re gonna have him on your team you’ve got to believe in him enough to understand he’s gonna put guys in the right situation,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said at shootaround on Monday.

New Orleans has been right to trust Rondo’s ability to move the ball. The team has shot 52.9 percent on 3-point attempts that come directly off a Rondo dish this postseason, up from 47.1 percent on catch-and-shoot threes during the regular season overall.

And many of the open looks have been the result of Rondo’s well-honed timing and patience.

On the defensive end, Rondo brings versatility against the Blazers’ dynamic – but not especially large – backcourt of Lillard and McCollum. Unlike previous years, when Rondo would’ve been asked to guard the opponents’ top backcourt threat for the entirety of a game, he’s mostly there to lessen the burden for Holiday, who does the heaviest lifting.

And it’s working. With Rondo (and occasionally Moore) providing support against the Blazers’ Lillard-plus-McCollum sets and Holiday clamping down when Portland staggers their stars, Dame and C.J. have been held to just 29-of-80 (36.3 percent) shooting.

Should the Pelicans pull off the series upset over the Trail Blazers, it will be interesting to see what happens with Rondo against the team’s likely second-round opponent, the Golden State Warriors. Against a healthy Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, the longer Holiday would likely guard Thompson, leaving Rondo to contain the two-time MVP.

With that, the feel-good Playoff Rondo vibes may not be long for our world.

Still, if there’s any player capable of rising to the occasion, it’s Rondo. When he finds a willing combatant at the intersection of personal pride and postseason glory, something elevates inside him.

Even if he’s not quite the Playoff Rondo of six years ago, he’s still the Playoff Rondo of right now. And for these Pelicans, that’s exactly what they need.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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