Tougher because of transition
Evolved Rondo a handful for LA
LOS ANGELES — He was 22 years old and in his first NBA Finals. When the Celtics assembled the new Big Three before the 2007-08 season, Rajon Rondo was deemed by many outsiders the weak link in the starting lineup, and the Lakers flat-out dared him to shoot.
He missed nine of 14 shots in the first two games. At times he passed up layups and kicked the ball out. Even though the Celtics won both games, Rondo was giving the Lakers what they wanted. In Game 3, Rondo played only 22 minutes. In Game 4 he played just 17, watching from the bench in the third quarter as the Celtics came back from 24 points down.
“It bothered him,’’ said coach Doc Rivers. “It bothered him more because he felt like he was putting pressure on his team. I don’t think it was ever an individual ego thing. He just felt like, ‘Wow, look what they’re doing and I’m hurting the team.’ And I thought that really personally bothered him.’’
The Lakers matched Kobe Bryant with Rondo, letting Bryant roam on defense without much regard for the young point guard. Other teams have copied the blueprint. And even though Rondo has learned to make teams pay, he still gets the treatment.
The Heat’s Dwyane Wade did it in the first round. When Rondo made barebones out of Anthony Parker in the second round, the Cavaliers threw LeBron James at him. In the Eastern Conference finals, the Magic sagged off of Rondo, giving him the jumper.
And as much as Rondo has changed as a player in two years, Rivers expects the Lakers to defend Rondo the same way.
“They’re going to put Kobe on him at times, and they’re going to sag off him,’’ Rivers said. “I think teams still think at the end of the day, he’s got to make shots. He’s got to make decisions. They’re going to use his guy to roam the floor. I don’t think that’s going to change at all.’’
The difference, Rivers pointed out: “Now, Rondo’s better-suited for it.’’
In all the ways Rondo has improved — sharpening his free throw shooting, embracing his leadership role, polishing his off-court image — Rivers said he has made his biggest strides in accepting his role and not feeling pressured to play outside of it. In the past, the Lakers challenge would have gotten to him.
“I think Rondo’s more comfortable with it,’’ Rivers said. “I think that’s the key. He’s more comfortable. He doesn’t take it personally anymore. He doesn’t try to prove to the guy he can score. He just runs the team now.
“And to me, over everything, that’s where he’s improved. He doesn’t care what they’re doing. He’s going to run the team regardless. Before, it bothered him.’’
Rondo, who is averaging 16.7 points and 10 assists this postseason, has been the maestro of the Celtics’ run to the Finals, his role expanding greatly from two years ago. He has become more refined as a point guard, understanding his capabilities and his limitations.
“I’m just finding other ways to dissect the team, the defense,’’ Rondo said. “It’s not necessarily when teams give me a shot I always have to take it. I can pick and choose when I want to shoot the ball.
“Knowing that, we still have to run our sets and get those guys the ball, get us in our sets, and get us easy looks. But if my shot is open and it’s the best shot within the shot clock, I’m going to take it.’’
Whether they defend him differently or not, the Lakers have no choice but to see him as a focal point.
“He’s definitely evolved as a player,’’ said Lamar Odom. “That’s obvious. He can do it all off the dribble. Good penetrator, passer, great hands. He’s a good point guard.’’
In the last six weeks, Lakers point guard Derek Fisher has had to deal with Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook blurring from baseline to baseline; the size, strength, and deceptive speed of Utah’s Deron Williams; and Phoenix’s symbol of consistency, Steve Nash.
Rondo’s progression presents a different challenge.
“He’s gotten better at a very fast rate,’’ Fisher said. “He’s become arguably the most important guy on their team in terms of when he plays very well, they’re hard — harder — to beat.
“I think he understands his game more. I think he understands the NBA game a lot more and how to pick his spots. To attack and be aggressive at the same time. To keep his other talented players involved and a part of the game. And his confidence is really up from the last couple of years.’’
Even though Rondo had his struggles in the 2008 Finals, in the Game 6 clincher he posted his best line of the playoffs: 21 points, 8 assists, 7 rebounds, 6 steals.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson said there was little to be learned from that game. It’s as simple as keeping Rondo from playing the transition game in which he thrives.
“There were a lot of things happening that fed into what he can do particularly well and he did it,’’ Jackson said.
Rivers has already measured how much Rondo has learned.
“He’s just more mature,’’ Rivers said. “He’s a better basketball player than he was two years ago. Our players trust him now. He’s a better player and he makes us a better team than he did two years ago.’’
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.