What To Do About Rondo

The Boston Celtics lost to the Miami HEAT Wednesday, but during that contest Rajon Rondo submitted the sort of performance that exists outside of the sphere of results-driven memories. Miami got a triple from each of its four primary shooters for the fourth time this season, Mario Chalmers continued to add consistent and effective value as a third creator, LeBron James was a defensive marvel and Dwyane Wade beat Boston’s trapping defense to seal the game in overtime, but it’s Rondo’s 44 points and 53 out of a possible 53 minutes that will be remember. Deservedly so.

In playing every minute of an overtime game, Rondo joined the ranks of James, Gilbert Arenas, Allen Iverson, Gary Payton and Nick Van Exel, while also topping his previous scoring high by nine and coming one overturned-three away from a career-high in triples. That’s where the schematic questions about how to defend Rondo turn up.

Standard NBA operating procedure against Rondo has for years been to go underneath screeners in pick-and-rolls and generally give him a cushion of space in order to prevent him from easily beating the first level of defense and creating chaos. The defense keeps Rondo in front and all five defenders are able to gain a certain confidence in his location, but as a result of that sacrificed space, Rondo gets to calmly survey the floor and make comfortable passes. Or, if he so chooses, he can take a jumper.

In Game 2, Rondo took more of those jumpers from 12 feet and out than he had in any preceding game of his career, making four more (10) field-goals from that distance than he ever had before. While the makes were remarkable for someone who shoots just under 40 percent from mid-range – note that most of Rondo’s jumpers are open due to the aforementioned defensive strategy, so the percentages don’t quite compare with those of, say, James or Wade – the mere fact that Rondo took so many speaks to the level of comfort he gained with Miami’s defensive strategy.

Both Chalmers and Wade got hung up on some of Kevin Garnett’s particular brand of “sticky” screens as they defended Rondo, and Rondo did hit some pull-up jumpers in transition, but more the most part the strategy seemed to be to give just enough of a cushion so that the defender could still attempt a recovery to contest a shot.

That much is important. Miami gives Rondo the space, but is never conceding a shot, as some might say. The ultimate goal is to contest every shot.

It’s obvious that Rondo isn’t going to shoot this well on jumpers off the dribble again. Nobody, not James, not Wade, not Kobe Bryant or Kevin Durant, will continue to hit 80 percent from that range no matter how open they are. The simple mathematical probability is highly against Rondo having a repeat performance in this series. That shouldn’t be a concern.

Confidence plays a big role in shooting, though, and while Rondo won’t keep hitting 80 percent, if he feels comfortable enough to step into each one of these looks and that translates into half of them going down, then it might be time to re-evaluate.

As Erik Spoelstra has said, options aren’t rolling in by the dozens.

“I have no idea, I’ll be honest,” Spoelstra said. “We’ve tried almost everything with him, and the conventional wisdom of saying he’s got to beat you over with the score, beat you with the jump shot, and beat you by not getting all the other guys going. They only had 15 assists. And you would never think that he would have that kind of monster game.”

Spoelstra believes in the numbers, and because the numbers say that Rondo won’t shoot the same again, it will take far more evidence of a new truth for him to abandon his current approach. Just as with the belief that earning open shots from efficient, probable areas of the court will yield the highest number of points over time, if you come into a game trying to push another team or specific player to shoot from your desired spots on the floor, one game of those shots falling doesn’t put a tactic in the wrong.

If you’ll pardon the analogy, you can roll a seven as many times as you want in a row, but it doesn’t make you more likely to do so the next time you pick up the dice.

Again, there is the human element in basketball, and Miami can push the chances of a Rondo miss further in their favor by simply contesting these shots better. You’ll see a little more variety – blitzing off the screen to push Rondo back, maybe a switch or two to throw him off – but there already is more of that than you might think. Keeping Rondo under the 10 transition possessions or 11 attempts at the rim he had in Game 2 will help as well, since layups tend to give a shot of confidence to even the most broken jumpers.

It will come down to contesting shots, whether Chalmers and Wade can close the gap quickly enough to make that cushion a little less inviting, because in the end, mid-range jumpers are the shots Miami wants Boston to be taking, whether it’s Rondo, Garnett or Paul Pierce doing the shooting. A shot Rondo takes dribbling off a screen is a pass to an open teammate that never happened and a shot in the paint that never sucked in any help defenders. Boston’s offense was always going to thrive on the mid-range or succumb to its own inefficiency.

We just didn’t expect Rondo to be the one thriving. Yet surprising as it was, shock value alone doesn’t prove a strategy wrong. The Heat can play better defense than they did in Game 2, but Rondo has yet to prescribe that defense dramatic change.

It takes more than a hot streak to bring down the house.

Statistical support for this article provided by Synergy Sports and NBA.com