2018 Playoffs | Western Conference Semifinals: Warriors (2) vs. Pelicans (6)
Rajon Rondo finds home with New Orleans Pelicans
Having kicked around the league in recent seasons, Rondo's unique game is an ideal fit with Pelicans stars Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday
NEW ORLEANS — His poker face is always on.
That makes it tough to know what Rajon Rondo is thinking at any given time, what’s going on in that complex basketball brain of his in the heat of the moment. And that’s just the way the veteran point guard likes it.
Ask him an obvious or silly question and you’ll probably get an appropriate answer, the way several reporters did after Rondo helped fuel the New Orleans Pelicans to Friday’s 19-point rout of the Golden State Warriors in Game 3 at Smoothie King Center.
“Was there anything you guys changed against Kevin Durant tonight?” he was asked.
Anyone who has been around Rondo long enough knew exactly what was coming.
“I wouldn’t tell you,” he said with shrug.
“Was it an aggressiveness?” the reporter asked, searching for an answer to a question that was never coming.
“I can’t tell you that,” Rondo shot back, smiling at his teammate Ian Clark sitting by his side. “I mean, we try to keep our secrets to ourselves and just make adjustments for Game 4.”
For Rondo to be in this position today, when the Pelicans host the Warriors in Game 4 in the Western Conference semifinals, is a tale unto itself. That he’s leading the Pelicans the way he is, however, should surprise no one.
Whatever you think of Rondo — and he’s been labeled as everything from brash, brilliant, brooding and belligerent over the course of his 12 seasons in the league — his impact on these Pelicans in his first season with the team has been undeniable. Clearly, he has some of that point guard magic left in him.
The Pelicans needed him and the attitude he brings, more than they probably understood until now.
The major knocks on his game — he can’t shoot and at 32 he’s lost a step or two — have not hampered his ability to light a fire on this team. And down 2-0 in this series with their season on the line Friday, he responded with the NBA’s first 20-assist playoff game since he did it last with Boston in 2011.
With all of the fancy upgrades at the position in recent years, including opposing point guard and two-time Kia MVP Stephen Curry, there’s still room for a throwback, pass-first brawler like Rondo in today’s game. There’s always use for a player capable of controlling the floor without needing to score 20 points to do it. Rondo had just four points while grabbing 10 boards and setting the Pelicans’ team record with 21 assists in Game 3.
“I think Rondo always does that,” backcourt mate Jrue Holiday said. “(It’s) the way he attacks the basket even though they’re backing off of him, the way he pushes the pace off of the rebound, and the way he’s fighting for rebounds. His fighting for rebounds and being able to push the pace is huge for us.
“It makes us want to run the floor and get to the corners. Knocking down shots is a lot easier when he does it, it’s always on time. Him being able to do that is huge for us, confidence wise. He just pushes the pace we want to play.”
Rondo’s fit with the Pelicans has been a revelation given the way his tenure has ended everywhere else he’s been recently.
The Celtics eventually went younger when Brad Stevens was hired to help facilitate that rebuild. Stints in Dallas, Sacramento and Chicago all ended with Rondo’s reputation taking a beating, though he did develop some good chemistry with DeMarcus Cousins in Sacramento, which no doubt played a factor in the Pelicans being interested in him last summer with Cousins already in the fold after a trade with the Kings.
Still, Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry needed confirmation that Rondo would be the right piece in his program, a player willing to go through the necessary give and take as they tried to reshape things around Anthony Davis, Cousins and Holiday.
“The visit I had with him in Louisville (last summer) I thought went great,” Gentry said. “I thought we hit it off in that some of the same things he wanted was a lot of the things I wanted to give him anyway. The freedom to run the team, and I think it’s easy to do in certain situations.
“Being a guy that has had Steve Nash, or being on Doc’s staff with CP (Chris Paul) there and obviously being on the Warriors with Steph there, I just thought that the natural thing to do was to give him the ability to run the team and make a lot of decisions. And we agreed that there would come a time when my voice would have to be the deciding voice. And he was fine with that.”
Gentry said they also analyzed Rondo’s skill-set and felt he would be the ideal trigger man for their unique assemblage of stars.
“We watched a ton of film on him and we thought that giving him a situation where he could play with more paced and a game being more wide open, he really hadn’t played that style of basketball really that we play,” Gentry said. “Mostly, it’s been pushing it in certain situations, but not the way we play, where we want to lead the league in pace. And I think he saw an opportunity here to play that way.”
Perhaps the best of what Rondo has brought to the Pelicans during this playoff run is the dark side, that edge they lacked before his arrival. Check with Portland Trail Blazers, swept in the first-round by the Pelicans, or Warriors All-Star Draymond Green if you need confirmation.
Rondo’s been in Davis’ ear all season long, demanding the face of the franchise show no mercy and dominate every night.
It’s a quality that all of his teammates have come to appreciate, though, because they know his motives are pure. He wants to win in the worst way and doesn’t mind stepping on a few toes or bruising some egos to get them there.
“It’s been great having him here,” Gentry said. “The communication is great. He’s the one guy that will text you at 2 a.m. and say, ‘hey, have you thought about this?’ or ‘hey, I think we can do this.’ That’s just who he is. And the other thing is he’s not afraid to get on guys. And they know anything that he says to them is for the benefit of the team and the benefit of themselves.
“Like I said, having him here has been great for us and then it’s been great for me because I like picking his mind about certain things. You know, ‘how did you guys do this?’ or ‘how did this happen in Boston?’ He’s a good basketball mind to have around.”
These are all the traits, Gentry is convinced, that will make Rondo an ideal candidate for the coaching business when he’s done playing.
“I don’t like using the term basketball savant because everybody says that,” Gentry said. “But he really does love the game. I really do think the guy is going to be a great coach in this league one day, if that’s what he wants to do. And I think it is what he wants to do. I think he’ll have a good feel for it.”
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