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Rondo faces big problem in the paint

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / June 5, 2010

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LOS ANGELES — Things started smoothly enough. Rajon Rondo sneaked into the paint behind the Lakers’ defense, took a feed from Paul Pierce, and converted an easy layup off the backboard for the Celtics’ first points of Game 1 Thursday night.

But from that point, it seemed as if there were 7 feet of yellow wherever he turned.

Later in the first quarter, Rondo had Lakers forward Lamar Odom one-on-one in the corner by the Celtics’ bench, the type of mismatch that normally would make Rondo’s eyes bulge out of their sockets.

He jabbed right and drove left along the baseline, seemingly skipping by Odom in just two steps. But when he got into the paint, Pau Gasol was in front of him. When Rondo tried to twist for a reverse layup, Odom was still lurking behind him, arms stretched, waiting to swat down the shot. Odom smacked the ball away from the rim, and Rondo tumbled to the floor.

Rondo would have his shot blocked, altered, or denied all night. Luke Walton got a piece of one. Gasol got a piece of another.

Rondo is like Basquiat around the rim, as creative in the paint as any guard in the league. But the Lakers refused to give him any inspiration, let alone any layups. Not only did they keep the Celtics’ spark plug out of transition, they kept him out of the lane. Boston’s offense stalled out as a result.

“You have to be aware of him,’’ Odom said. “You have to take easy opportunities away from him.’’

The Lakers made sure nothing came easy in the paint for Rondo. He missed four layups in the Celtics’ 102-89 loss, twisting near the basket trying to find ways to score.

In this postseason, Rondo has had midair collisions with Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard. But the Lakers present a different challenge, with multiple 7-footers forming a wall and forcing Rondo not to run into it, but shoot around it.

“They’re all different shot-blockers, but at the same time, Shaq is different from Dwight and Dwight is different from Gasol and [Andrew] Bynum,’’ Rondo said. “But they all change shots.’’

What the Lakers want to prevent Rondo from doing is luring in their big men as he drives to the basket, then dumping the ball to Kevin Garnett or Kendrick Perkins for easy plays that could ignite the Celtics’ offense.

“That really gets their team going when KG gets dunks and Perkins gets dunks,’’ Bynum said. “It gets them going, so we just want to eliminate all that.’’

The Lakers’ answer is to make Rondo shoot over lamp posts.

“What happens is he’s the kind of guy that waits for the bigs to commit fully to him and then he looks to drop passes,’’ said Bynum. “We were trying to really make him finish and [do it] over a 7-footer, whether it be Pau or me, wait until he goes to shoot the ball rather than committing early.’’

The Lakers’ size is an extra issue for Rondo, who also has Kobe Bryant, an eight-time All-Defensive first-team selection, shadowing him.

“You try to stay in front of him as much as you can,’’ Bryant said. “I’m not saying anything that teams haven’t tried to do in the past. He’s obviously turned into a phenomenal player, and I’ll just try to control his speed as much as possible.’’

Rondo has many layups in his arsenal — reverses, high-glass bank shots, teardrops — but adjusting to the Lakers’ length is a challenge.

“When they step up I try to dish it off or use my floater — they still have to go get it,’’ Rondo said. “Gasol blocked a couple of my layups, so I had to change a couple of my shots. He made good plays on the ball.’’

The Lakers noticed the effect their shot-blockers had on Rondo.

“There was one time, he got blocked early in the game, he caught a pass and he put it up really quick and missed a layup,’’ Odom said.

But they expect him to figure out ways to finish at the rim or create for teammates.

“You have to be aware of Rondo all the time, and because he’s such a good penetrator, you tend to play off of him,’’ Odom said. “He’s so good that even if you play off of him to give him a shot, he’s still kind of breaking you down.

“Even when he gives the ball up, he’s still great at cutting and moving without the ball. But I expect him to find seams in the defense, especially in the paint, to get his shot off. He’s one of the best at that in the league.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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