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LeBron on Rondo: The Team Should Be Ready

 

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.

  • cavsfan

    zach you’re 100% right. as a cavs fan i dont think lebron needs to guard rondo. i think it was on truehoop but as we all saw in game 4, parker sagging off rondo really didn’t prevent him from going wherever he wanted. he could relax and not feel pressure and just do whatever he wanted.

    my favorite part of this whole analysis: “The result is that nobody does and Rondo gets a clean lay-up chance that J.J. Hickson goal-tends.” hes really clueless.

  • Jay P

    Good stuff, as usual.

  • WitnessThis

    Of all the “story lines” in this series, this is the silliest yet. James only said he’d be willing to guard Rondo when asked point blank by a reporter who was fishing for a story with no factual basis.

    James’ defense of Pierce has been the most successful part of the Cavs strategy all series. They’re not going to mess with that to impliment a tactic Mike Brown doesn’t even approve of.

  • http://CelticsHub.com Zach Lowe

    @witness: Agreed. Thus the over/under at 12 possessions, which I consider high.

  • Cptn Bubbles

    If they throw some odd wrinkle at Rajon it will be interesting to see if Doc & Rajon are good enough to make an in game modification to counter or exploit it. I like our chances with Rajon because he is very smart, great at ball-handling, & has the speed to turn danger into opportunity. The only problem is if he is too passive or too anxious. He just needs to be aggressive (especially on DEFENSIVE REBOUNDING) & avoid the extremes of passivity & recklessness.

    I’m really more interested in what we can do to them DEFENSIVELY. I want to take the fight to them instead of worrying about our counters. One of the most important issues for us is BALL PRESSURE. I would like to see us not concede half the court when they are bringing it up. Instead, I would like for us to do some ball trapping & full court pressure to keep them off balance at opportune times (not every possession but if it works then keep doing it).

    I think TA has more physical tools to bother bron, not stop bron, but really pester him. TA gets up high in the air on brons shots & can contort his body to challenge shots. It’s not talked about, but TA is quite the contortionist in air challenging shots. When you slo mo it to watch– it is a thing of beauty. Also, TA has been the gadfly herding bron several times right into a waiting baby (who is one of our best charge takers). Most underrated—–TA can BALL DENY bron. He has the quickness to make passing angles to bron much more difficult.

    I really enjoy watching TA & Rondo play together. There is so much energy & quickness between the 2 of them that it’s like a volcano ready to blow its top. When they are fully invested, I eagerly watch them with great anticipation of a game changing eruption. The two of them playing around the top of the key really screws up the passing lanes & angles & you can see clev’s offense go into disarray. All the while tick, tick, tick….. I hate seeing no ball pressure & the cavs spreading the floor & picking us apart. I love to watch the indecisiveness & downright fear when a cav guard picks up his dribble = blood in the water & our 2 frenzied sharks know it’s feeding time

  • dont_drink_the_koolaid

    i really hope lebron’s ego wins out over mike brown on this one. lebron on rondo would be the best thing to happen for the Cs:
    - Cavs adjusting gameplan to Cs, not the other way around (who is the best team in the league here?)
    - major ego bruise to all other perimeter defenders (mo/parker/delonte/moon)
    - injects some bad chemistry into Cavs just when they are starting to have their first title doubts of the season
    - refs also notice this stuff, extra calls on mo/parker/delonta/moon when they do guard rondo
    - lebron spends more time away from the basket
    - lebron gets tired and it hurts his O production
    - they don’t do any fullcourt on rondo to save lebrons legs
    - lebron has to run back to stop the break after every miss (and he is usually the one right at the O rim)
    - Pierce gets fired up at the lack of respect
    - Rondo steps his intensity another level to meet the challenge

    please Lebron, make Mike Brown think he will be fired this offseason if he doesn’t bend to your wishes!! Cs might even take the series in 6 if they go to this.

  • dont_drink_the_koolaid

    @captain. i’d also like to see the Cs get more physical. the only semi-hard foul i recall on lebron was perk at the beginning of game3. i did not expect such kid-glove treatment….especially on lebron and mo in the lane. Perk, Sheed or TA should bring down a couple ‘stop, hammertime’.

  • Jason

    I guess I’m the rare Cs fan who is actually worried about this strategy. First, Queen is shutting down Pierce to the point Pierce is barely even trying. Still I don’t understand the Cavs fear of taking the Queen off Pierce. The Queen is a great defender and the Cavs biggest problem is clearly Rondo. Pierce may not even be their second problem. He’s probably behind KG and Ray. So, you put your best solution on your #1 problem. That’s a no brainer. Yeah the Cs have counters, but like you showed they just as readily get lazy. Plus, even going through KG, the ball is out of Rondo’s hands and while KG’s good, having the ball in Rondo’s hands is the best.

    I think the Queen on Rondo gives the Cavs the best chance to win regardless of the other negatives that cascade from it. But, that being the case, almost by definition, Mike Brown probably won’t do it.

  • dont_drink_the_koolaid

    @jason. i hear ya, but disgree on one aspect of ‘having the ball in rondo’s hands is the best’. he is best as a distributer/quarterback to this mutli-dimensional offensive team. he only needs to create for himself up to the point it causes a Cs advantage/mismatch in one of the other 4 spots. if the cavs put lebron on rondo it essentially it gives the Cs the mismatches/advantages without rondo even having to create them.

    lebron may cause a bit more difficulty on the dish, but with rondos first step, vision and long arms there is no way he can stop him from getting his pass off. he could deny him the ball more but then we already have the other guys in more favorable circumstances anyways.

    i just don’t see anyway this would really help the cavs.

  • Jay P

    @Jason

    You’re right to say Pierce isn’t ever their second biggest problem… right now. Don’t forget just last series Paul put up 20 a game. The guy can still score. But he can’t score on James, he’s too big, to strong, to fast. Paul can’t shoot over him, and he’s not fast enough to get by him.

    This isn’t a knock on Paul, just an admission of Paul’s decline (understandably, he’s had his share of injuries, and he’s in the twilight of his career) and to highlight the fact, that he can’t be a dominant, play agaisnt anyone each and every night scorer, anymore.

    But, in the right match up, when he gets good looks, the guy can still play basketball. So the point is, put Parker on him, who’s a lot smaller, and quite a bit slower, and suddenly Paul gets another inch to get that shot off, and he has the strength to power through Parker if he takes him to the rim.

    Now add to the fact that James only MIGHT be able to stop Rondo. He might be fast, but Rondo is in another class of speed. Plus if you don’t pressure the ball, Rondo gets into his momentum, and can pick his lanes better, so you need James chasing him full court, and then still carrying your offense, that’s one hell of a lot to task out of one guy.

    If they do it, their basically saying we’re going to mortgage any chance we have in this series on the idea that only Rondo can beat us, and the rest of the Celtics have nothing. The Big 3 might be old… but they aren’t that old.

  • Ross in Maine

    Now THIS is the eloquent, in-depth critical analysis of Celts ball that we’ve grown to love and expect from Zach that leaves me wondering if he’s a secret member of the C’s coaching staff.

    Things to look for with James on Rondo:
    #1 Rondo actually having a more assists than rebounds in game 5.
    #2 Paul and KG combining for over 20 points in the first half.
    #3 Start of the game adjustments reverting to prior game match ups at the start of the second half if the Cavs are not wildly up.
    Rest assured knowing that we’re not better coaches than Mike Brown. I can’t imagine the press and fans pressuring him into this change any more than just to show us why he won’t go with it.

    I think we’re in for a close game, barring any “referee entanglements” . GO C’s!

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