Rajon Rondo readily admits now that quick success warped his thinking.
As a second-year pro, a 21-year-old Rondo teamed with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen to lift the Boston Celtics to their 17th NBA championship in the 2008 Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers.
“I had a lot of great teammates early, great coaching staffs early, and I thought that’s what the NBA was,” he said.
Twelve years and plenty of potholes in the road later, Rondo conjured up his unique brand of postseason magic in Game 6 of the NBA Finals to help the Lakers down the Miami Heat 106-93 on Sunday for, coincidentally, their 17th title. Rondo joins Clyde Lovellette (Minneapolis Lakers and Boston Celtics) in becoming just the second player in league history to win NBA championships with both the Celtics and the Lakers.
“This one, by far, is the hardest one,” Rondo said.
Yet Rondo orchestrated his contributions to Sunday’s triumph with relative ease.
Rondo drilled 6-for-6 shots from the field and 1-of-1 from deep for 13 points in the first half to go with four rebounds and two assists, as Los Angeles built a 64-36 halftime advantage, which registers as the second-largest lead at intermission in Finals history. In the second quarter alone, Rondo lit up the Heat for nine points on 4-for-4 shooting, including 1-for-1 from 3-point range as Los Angeles outscored Miami 36-16.
But even with the Lakers up 30 points in the third quarter, Rondo could be seen screaming at teammates and directing traffic as a way of guiding the franchise’s 17 championship to the finish line.
“We knew Miami wasn’t going to quit,” said Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who chipped in 17 points. “We have seen it before. Just watching their other series, they came back [from] down 19 or 20 in the fourth, and Rondo recognized that. And Rondo is great, you know, [a] coach and player on the court.
“He gets us in the right spots and made sure we were in the mindset of just keep attacking, finish the game and don’t let up. He enforced that tonight, and we all just bought into it, and we got the [win].”
Rondo’s approach to Game 6 serves as testament to how much he values what he’s learned over the years. Such opportunities are rare and fleeting. Having played with the Celtics his first nine NBA seasons (2006-14), Rondo earned NBA All-Star recognition on four occasions, in addition to being named to the All-Defensive Team four times. He’s led the league in assists twice, and once in steals.
But the victory over the Heat on Sunday sealed just his second NBA title, coincidentally, for the team Rondo’s Celtics defeated for that title in 2008, which was led at the time by the departed Kobe Bryant.
“I got to compete against Kobe Bryant when I was 21,” Rondo said. “So, his game and his legacy speaks for itself. Me being a kid from Louisville, Kentucky, to be able to compete with Kobe two years into the league, understand and learn so much from him by watching his film and studying his film, it’s definitely an honor.
“And to come full circle to win in his honor, his daughter’s honor, unbelievable season that we’ve had. And to be able to prevail and stay focused and continue to get the job done, I know something, he’s definitely smiling down on us. We’re able to fulfill our dream and succeed with the championship.”
It’s been a long time for me. To play a big part in this championship is definitely a hell of a feeling.”
Rondo departed Boston in December 2014 via trade, sent off to the Dallas Mavericks, and struggled to find a fit in the new surroundings. Rondo joined the Sacramento Kings for the 2015-16 season, and then the Chicago Bulls in 2016-17. By the time Rondo signed with the New Orleans Pelicans for 2017-18, he was playing for his fifth team in four seasons with current Lakers power forward Anthony Davis, who scored 19 points in Sunday’s Game 6 win.
“Down the road [in] Year 10, 11, things changed for me in my career,” Rondo explained. “Every time going into training camp, you weren’t expected to win a championship because of the teams I was on. So, that was a different mindset coming into the season. But to be able to get back to this, this season in particular, understanding that we did have a team to compete for a championship from Day 1, and to be able to come full circle an entire year later, we reached our goal and our dream.
“It’s been a long time for me. To be able to come back and redeem myself and play a big part in this championship is definitely a hell of a feeling, and something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka, meanwhile, discussed Rondo’s impact off the floor in the celebratory locker room.
When Los Angeles met Saturday on the heels of its 111-108 loss to the Heat in Game 5, Rondo stepped up and told the team exactly how it would capture a title.
“Rondo said yesterday in our team meeting, if we're going to win a championship, it has to be with defense, period,” Pelinka said. “I think what we saw tonight was just a defensive showing of force tied together with a great game plan by Frank Vogel and his staff, and so we're honored to work with a basketball mind like his.”
Of course, Rondo’s assertion regarding Los Angeles’ defense proved correct, as the Lakers finished 21-0 this season when holding opponents to fewer than 100 points, including three instances of that in these Finals.
After winning his first title as a 21-year old, Rondo and the Celtics fell to Los Angeles in the 2010 NBA Finals.
Lakers teammate Dwight Howard (11 years) and Rondo (10 years) have played the second- and third-most years between losing and winning in the NBA Finals, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
“It’s been a rocky last couple of seasons,” Rondo said. “We didn’t get to the playoffs last year. A couple years ago, a teammate got hurt and excited early in the playoffs. So, just staying the course. Never too high, never too low, and continuing to grind. I pride myself on how hard I work. People that know me know how dedicated I am to the game, and my mind and my body, the work I put in in the offseason, and it’s definitely a blessing to be able to come out and reap the benefits of what I’ve been working for for so long.”
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