In the year of our lord 2020, Rajon Rondo was a critical on-court contributor to a team that won the NBA Championship. If you’d asked most contributors to the NBA conversation (aka people who watch and analyze the game for a living — or even just for fun — but don’t work for or are associated with the Lakers) before the season whether this was possible, they’d have told you the odds of this being true were very low.
I know that would be true for me, at least. Well, at least it would have been sort of true. Okay, okay. Mostly true.
You see, I’ve said many things about Rondo that pretty much doubted he could put forward the type of playoff performance he did this year. And I’ve said them many times over. Here at this site, on podcasts, on twitter, and in conversations none of you are even privvy to. It got to the point, I’m sure, that many people were tired of hearing them, even if you agreed.
But, you see, when it came to all those doubts I was wrong. Mostly.
In several playoff games in the Lakers run to the title, Rondo was the Lakers 3rd best player. He not only did all the point guard-y things associated with him at this stage of his career — the directing of traffic, organizing and initiating of offense both in transition and the halfcourt, the high level passing — but he also shot the ball well from beyond the arc, drove the paint and finished at the rim, and even did some ball-hawking defensively both at the point of attack and as an off-ball helper.
Again, I just did not really believe Rondo had those latter things in him anymore. At least not for an extended stretch. But, there Rondo was, playing high level ball round after round these playoffs.
In the Rockets series he was unbelievable in multiple games, helping the Lakers play smaller for longer stretches and dispatch them in 5 games. In the Nuggets series he was consistently really good, providing steadiness offensively and using his chemistry with AD to help the Lakers win the non-LeBron minutes of the series. Against the Heat, he had two really strong games, including the closeout game 6 where he again took his game to another level and channeled a version of himself from a decade prior as a finisher in the paint and shot creator.
To steal a Seinfeld-ism, Playoff Rondo was real and he was spectacular.
To be fair, I was not completely wrong about Rondo. Even if it’s not in the way some may think. You see, did believe Rondo could be a valued contributor this year even while looking at his limitations with clear eyes. I thought all the things he was good at were needed ingredients on this roster as it was constructed. His playmaking, his penchant for pushing the pace, his chemistry with Anthony Davis, and the trickle-down effect these strengths could have to help prop up units without LeBron James were all things this team desperately needed and things I thought he could provide.
I was on that train very early in the season and, even when getting quite upset at some of the dips of his overall play over the course of the year, I believed the best version of him was exactly what this Lakers team lacked. And, if he could conjure that more often, he would have real value.
Of course, where I was wrong (again), was in how often I thought he could conjure it and whether he could do it at all during the playoffs — particularly after missing all of the seeding games and the entire first round of the playoffs after breaking his hand shortly after arriving in Orlando. I didn’t think the useful version of Rondo would reappear after so much time off and did believe his spot in the rotation should not just be handed back to him.
I thought the evidence was on my side, too. In a way, I still believe the evidence was.
Needless to say, the key thing I missed wasn’t just how much Rondo had left to offer and in how big a role he could offer it, but his ability to narrow his focus + make determinations on the best time to give his all + how good his “all” still was. Which, ultimately, is where the myth of Playoff Rondo meets reality in the middle of the venn diagram. Rondo’s smarts and acumen combine with an ability to rise to the higher stakes of the postseason to equal a different caliber of player. That, to me, is the essense of the version of Rondo that so clearly helped the Lakers win the championship.
In the wake of the team winning, more and more stories have emerged about how the people internally saw this firsthand. From Rondo’s influence in developing a defensive gameplan vs. Jimmy Butler, to his breaking down of tape with LeBron during this run, to his leadership in being able communicate directly with LeBron on things Rondo thought LeBron could do better…Rondo’s off-court intangibles helped lead to tangible production and results from him and his teammates throughout the playoffs.
Right after game 6, one of the longest embraces LeBron had with any player was with Rondo. And when retelling what that night’s celebrations brought, Frank Vogel said one of the most meaningful conversations was with Rondo who expressed a gratefulness for his coach sticking with and believing in him.
Well, that belief was deserved. And, even if some of the doubts and second guessing seemed right in the moment, the expression of how true those doubts would be over the course playoffs were not. I was wrong about Rajon Rondo. Mostly. And thank goodness I was.