Defending Rajon Rondo: A Lakers Primer
By that I mean he's not something you can prevent. You can't deter him, swing him off course, anticipate or limit. He's going to happen to you. And when he does, it's going to be unfortunate for you and your loved ones. You can only really hope to survive him. Sometimes that means making him into the sole offensive option and trying to sucker him into a high usage night where his shot's not falling. Sometimes it means frustrating him by pressuring his teammates into bad decisions. But as far as stopping No. 24, there's little to nothing you can do.
The Lakers do not see any such forces of nature on the Celtics. Age has deteriorated the Big 3 to manageable players. Don't let Garnett body you in the post and recover hard on the pick and pop for the 18 footer. Keep Pierce away from the elbow, don't fall for the pump fake, and make sure your weak-side defender has an eye on him. Close hard on Allen off the screen and cut off his baseline drive. These are all difficult, but nothing is near the impossible dream of collapsing Kobe.
But Rajon Rondo? He just so happens to be a very particular kind of Pandora's Box.
I can wax on about Rondo's skill set if it was necessary, but you've seen it. The vision in transition. The ball-fake floaters. The offensive rebounding. The velocity on both drive and kick. The high bank shot, the improving mid-range, the whole shebang. Rondo hasn't hit a level where he's simply unstoppable. However, his versatility tends to create that matchup for itself, and from all accounts injury was the only thing keeping him from ending the Orlando series in fewer games. So if the Lakers want to take control of the series, and early, they need to figure out how to guard Rajon Rondo.
Now, taking out elite point guards isn't anything new to the Lakers. This year in the playoffs they've solved Russell Westbrook's explosiveness, Deron Williams' dynamics, and Steve Nash's craft. It's hard to argue that Rajon Rondo is a better point guard than those last two, yet so far in the playoffs, that's been the case. He's showcased more, consistently, than any point guard -- and perhaps any player -- in the NBA playoffs. Part of that is how he has combined the attributes of those three players while also adding stellar defense and aggressiveness.
For the purposes of our discussion, let's approach these three point guards in reverse chronological order.
Steve Nash may actually have been the easiest point guard for the Lakers to topple, because they could live with his contributions. Nash's physical gifts don't exacerbate the Lakers' biggest defensive weakness (Derek Fisher). Nash was an ideal counter for Fisher, who could use his body and veteran know-how to hang with the former MVP. And the things that worked for Nash won't work as well with Rondo. Rondo doesn't have a devastating pick and roll partner to work off of like Nash had with Amar'e Stoudemire. Instead, he'll be dishing mostly to spot-up shots or cuts. And the same long arms that disrupted Nash's passes will likely hinder Rondo's, as the Lakers seek to do the same thing to him that they did to Nash, force him to be a scorer.
Deron Williams may be the best of all the point guards the Lakers have faced, but quite simply, his team was outmatched, start to finish, and when you take away the captain's ship, he's just a man standing with a big wheel. Williams still managed to average nearly 9 assists per game in L.A.'s sweep, and was extremely aggressive in going to the line. The Lakers can live with that formula, particularly with Rondo's less than automatic free throw shooting.
But it's Russell Westbrook that must concern the Lakers most. It's Westbrook that Rondo can be best compared to. Young, explosive, physically talented, capable of dropping leaners, and if that mid-range jumper gets going, look out. It was Westbrook that exposed Fisher early as incapable of keeping up with a healthy, fast point guard. And while Rondo suffered muscle spasms versus Orlando, he should be healthy for Game 1. At that point, the dominoes may start to fall.
The Lakers solved the Westbrook problem by sicking Kobe Bryant on him. Faced with one of the elite players in the league, Westbrook's inexperience and fatigue enabled the Lakers to contain him in order to close out the series in Oklahoma City. But moving Kobe to Rondo meant Derek Fisher had only to defend Thabo Sefolosha. And Thabo, no offense, is no Ray Allen. Once Fisher switches to Allen, he'll be subjected to a series of brutalizing screens, all meant to take a toll on the elder statesman, while freeing up Allen from long range. With Bryant chasing Rondo from end to end, there's also the complication of Kobe's rebounding going down, and the Celtics have rebounded very well in the playoffs thus far. Switching Ron Artest to Allen is impossible, because that means a drastic change on who's guarding Paul Pierce. A bigger lineup of Bryant-Artest-Odom-Gasol-Bynum can't play significant minutes together for depth reasons, and would mess up the flow of the triangle.
The Lakers will most likely begin with Fisher attempting to body and frustrate Rondo. When this fails, and it will fail, they'll switch to either hard double teams off perimeter screens to force the ball from his hands, or bringing help consistently low to make him earn it at the line. The name of the game here is containment. He's allowed to do damage, he's just not allowed to bring the house down. It's a fine line, but that's what separates champions from also-rans, the ability to thread that line.