It has been the hot news item of the week so far in Celtics Land: Will LeBron James guard Rajon Rondo in Game 5? LeBron says he wants to, but Mike Brown is cautious, worried that shifting LeBron onto Rondo would give Paul Pierce the favorable match-up (against Anthony Parker) that Pierce needs to get going.
Lost in all the LeBron/Rondo hype is this: This isn’t new for the Celtics or Rajon, and the team should be ready for it.
Teams have been putting bigger guys on Rondo and daring him to shoot the jump shot for years. Kobe Bryant did it in the 2008 Finals. Jared Jeffries did it last season with the Knicks. Dwyane Wade did it for extended stretches in the C’s first-round series against Miami this season.
The C’s have a dozen (maybe more) bread-and-butter counters to this strategy that don’t involve Rondo simply taking a long jumper. We saw the C’s use all of them against Miami in the first round. They ran a Pierce/Rondo screen/roll with Rondo as the screener; they used Rondo as an off-the-ball screener to free KG near the foul line; they had Rondo pass off to Pierce, drift over to the weak side and flash to the basket along the baseline as Pierce went into his move in the mid-range area.
And guess what?
We’ve already seen LeBron guard Rondo on a half-dozen possessions in this series.
Two possessions in Game 1 highlight how the C’s can burn this strategy—and how they can flounder against it if they get lazy. (Apologies, by the way, for the lack of video; we’re having some computer issues in the Lowe household tonight).
(7:12, 2nd): This possession starts after a stoppage, with LeBron re-entering the game off the bench. He takes Rondo because he wants to, not because of some cross-match created in transition. Rondo walks the ball up the left side, realizes LeBron is guarding him and passes off to Ray Allen on the left wing.
Then Rondo does what he’ll do often against this defense: He drifts over to the weak side (the right wing in this case) as the action unfolds on the opposite side of the court, where Ray Allen negotiates an entry pass to KG. This is a simple move, but it’s smart. It puts LeBron between the ball and Rondo, and it plays into LeBron’s temptation to rove if Ray drives into the paint or passes to KG on the block against Jamison.
Ray throws the entry pass to KG on the left block. I really wish I had video of this, because you’d see LeBron standing at the right elbow with his head turned all the way around to watch KG work in the post. Rondo is standing behind the three-point line on the right wing; LeBron is paying him no attention. Paul Pierce, curiously, is between James and Rondo, creating a situation in which four guys are standing in the right elbow area: Pierce, Rondo, James and Pierce’s man, Jamario Moon.
James suddenly darts over to double KG. This is exactly what Boston wants. Rondo sees his chance and cuts down the paint. Here’s where Pierce’s presence near Rajon at the right elbow proves to be a brilliant little move. Moon is so concerned with Pierce that he misses the the start of Rondo’s cut; by the time Moon realizes what’s going on, Rondo is past him.
Even so, Moon sees the problem before LeBron does. But when LeBron turns around, his first move is back toward Pierce at the elbow; perhaps James thinks Moon should switch and take Rajon. The result is that nobody does and Rondo gets a clean lay-up chance that J.J. Hickson goal-tends.
A couple of things about this play:
1) Look at the line-up Cleveland has on the floor: They’ve got Delonte West (6’4”) and Jamario Moon (a long and athletic 6’8”) at the guard positions. Is it an accident that LeBron makes the rare decision to take Rondo when Cleveland has its biggest possible back court in the game? West is a credible match-up for Ray Allen, and Moon, two inches taller than Anthony Parker, is a natural match-up for Pierce.
This is why I don’t anticipate seeing James guard Rondo much in Game 5 despite the hype around the issue. Mike Brown is clearly hesitant to place Mo Williams and Parker in the mismatches the move would create. Either Brown plays Williams and Parker fewer minutes and takes a slight offensive hit or he keeps his rotation the same and accepts the defensive mismatches.
There is a third solution: He keeps his rotation the same and uses LeBron on Rondo in very limited circumstances—when he’s got the right personnel in the game (as in the above possession) or in crunch time, as Brown did with some success against Derrick Rose in Game 3 of Cleveland’s first-round series.
This is what I think we’ll see. I’d set the over/under on possessions at which LeBron guards Rondo at around a dozen, and I’d take the under.
2) The other thing about this possession: It shows how valuable the KG/Jamison mismatch in the post can be for Boston when Cleveland uses this Anti-Rondo strategy. Look for the C’s to run their offense through KG on the block a lot if Brown goes with LBJ on Rajon.
Lastly, here’s an example of what can’t happen if/when LeBron guards Rondo, also from Game 1:
(3:35, 1st): LeBron picks up Rondo on the left side in delayed transition. This is not planned. We know this because Mo Williams is guarding Pierce on the right elbow. Rondo lobs the ball to Pierce, who faces up at the three-point line.
And then…nothing happens. The four other Celtics are all on the left side of the floor, leaving Pierce alone on the right side. Rondo sort of drifts around the left side as LeBron edges over toward the foul line, anticipating a Pierce drive into the paint or pull-up at the elbow. Rajon doesn’t cut to the left corner or down the middle or to the baseline. He just strolls in no-man’s land, 18 feet from the hoop on the left wing, within a few feet of both KG (on the block) and Ray (at the three-point line).
LeBron is free to come over and help on Pierce here, because the four other Celtics and jammed together and have thus made it very easy for three Cavaliers to guard them and take away any passing lanes to the weak side. LeBron pounces as Pierce gets to the elbow, smacks the ball away and takes off on a fast break.
Again: This is what cannot happen if LeBron guards Rondo. The C’s have all the tools to solve this defense with creative screening, aggressive off-the-ball cuts (particularly from Rondo), quick decisions and the exploitation of the KG/Jamison match-up in the post.