(Ty Nowell/Los Angeles Lakers)
Rajon Rondo's Clutch Christmas
When the world’s greatest player went down to injury, the Lakers turned to a former rival to lead them in their most high-profile game of the regular season.
After LeBron James left in the third quarter due to a strained left groin, Rajon Rondo righted the ship. The 13-year veteran finished the night with 15 points, 10 assists and zero turnovers in only 23 minutes.
The Lakers nearly surrendered their huge lead against the defending-champion Warriors, but instead realigned and charged ahead to a 26-point win on Christmas Day.
“Rondo was gigantic at controlling the pace, getting to his spots — either for scoring from his layup package or finding guys out there,” LeBron said.
This is hardly a new development for Rondo — who has ranked among the NBA’ s top five in assists for seven of the last nine seasons.
But it is nice for the Lakers to know that the 32-year-old remains an elite distributor. This season, he has been especially skilled at finding his bigs in the pick-and-roll.
When Rondo passes to the roll man (like to Ivica Zubac in the clip above), the Lakers have shot 13-of-18 and averaged 1.55 points per possession, ranking in the NBA’s 97th percentile on such plays, according to Synergy tracking data.
And that ability to thread the ball through tight windows becomes useful in other situations as well.
His best pass of the game came on a beautiful play where he faked a handoff to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, only to drive to the hoop and find KCP seconds later with a perfectly-timed, around-the-back bounce pass.
An incredible night for Rajon Rondo, highlighted by this pass:— Joey Ramirez (@JoeyARamirez) December 26, 2018
Fakes the handoff to KCP, who loops around a Zubac screen and receives a perfect behind-the-back dime from Rondo.
: https://t.co/fc4NmH7S8k pic.twitter.com/tIlJt1KZDb
And while Rondo’s passing will always be his greatest gift to the Lakers, his scoring is what dug them out of trouble against Golden State.
In particular, Rondo thrived via his ability to attack off the dribble and beat his man in one-on-one situations.
Rajon Rondo gave the Warriors' switching defense fits by finding the matchups he wanted and attacking in isolation. pic.twitter.com/Iso8jdFxIY— Joey Ramirez (@JoeyARamirez) December 26, 2018
The Lakers led by 14 when LeBron went down, but that advantage was down to two just five minutes later.
But from that point on, Rondo scored 13 of his 15 points, including nine in the fourth quarter.
“Rajon Rondo was fantastic in the fourth quarter,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “I thought he took over the game.”
In a small sample size, Rondo has been elite in isolation this year. He has shot 10-of-18 on iso attempts, while averaging 1.16 points per possession and ranking among the league’s 89th percentile.
The Warriors received a heavy dose of this, as Rajon hit four iso shots against them, including when he caught Jonas Jerebko with a crossover into his trademark Rondo ball fake.
Moving forward, Rondo’s presence on the Lakers is still largely unestablished, as he has missed 20 of their 34 games due to injury/suspension.
But if Christmas night was any kind of a preview, he will be an instrumental part of their campaign.
It’s no wonder that the coaching staff’s game plan included having either LeBron or Rondo on the court for all 48 minutes. When James’ injury obviously derailed that strategy, Rondo took it upon himself to deliver.
“Tonight on the road against the defending champs, we were going to try and keep LeBron and Rajon on the floor at all times, just to have that veteran leadership out there,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “Rajon was brilliant tonight especially in that second half with LeBron getting hurt.”
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