You’ve got the presence of Ron Artest and an injured Andrew Bynum for the Lakers, the improvement of Pau Gasol, the regression of Kevin Garnett, the added seasoned depth of the Celtics bench.
All of these factors will come into play in the outcome of this series. To me though, there is still one factor that trumps all these changes, and that is the improved play and consistency of Rajon Rondo from two years ago.
Rondo’s importance throughout the season to this team has been well chronicled here at CelticsHub, so I won’t waste too much time on it. It’s easy to forgot though just how ineffective Rondo was in that 2008 Finals series, especially on the road where he was a clear liability. A quick look at his averages back then:
08 Postseason: 32mpg, 10.2ppg, 4.1rpg, 6.6ast, 40.7% FG, 25% 3pt FG
08 NBA Finals: 27mpg. 9.3ppg, 3.8rpg, 6.7ast, 37.7% FG, 25% 3pt FG
Rondo obviously was a clear fourth or fifth wheel back during that run. You didn’t need me to tell you that. However, it’s worth noting just how much those numbers dropped off when he left the cozy confines of the TD Garden during those finals. Here’s Rondo’s numbers for those 3 games in LA.
Road Games in 08 Finals: 18mpg, 5.3ppg, 2rpg, 3ast 7/19 FG, 2/4 FT (3 games)
Yikes. Just over 6 field goal attempts a game for a guy who wasn’t even being guarded on the offensive end of the floor for much of those contests by Kobe Bryant….and for good reason. Rondo was a non-threat offensively, which helped the Lakers key on the other C’s stars, which enabled them to build big 1st half leads in nearly all 3 games in LA, before Doc Rivers made the adjustments necessary.
It was a understandable problem for a 2nd year guard entering the limelight. Playing on the road in a pressure packed intimidating environment is daunting for any green player in that situation. It was a flaw for other youngsters in the C’s lineup (Perk, Powe, Baby) that season as well
So what’s the expectation for the 2009-10 version? Don’t look for it to be a factor in these Finals, if you believe the coach and other veterans on this squad.
Ray Allen: “We were still young in 08, we weren’t really great winning on the road … we weren’t comfortable; we were still trying to figure it out. Rondo had never been in the playoffs before, so you know, it was like we were just carrying everybody along with us like, ‘ok this is what’s going to happen this is what’s going to go down’ … I think Rondo has grown tremendously and definitely Perkins.”
Doc Rivers (on the younger guys playing road): “Rondo, Perk- it’s no big deal to them anymore,”
The numbers back up both Doc and Ray’s assessment of Rondo’s play. This year, Rondo home and road splits have improved immensely, for both the regular and postseason. In fact, Rondo has been a more aggressive player on the road all year long, averaging 14 points on 11.5 shots per game away from Boston, compared to 13.4 points and 10.9 shot attempts at home.
Rondo doesn’t fear playing anywhere anymore and it’s been a crucial determinant in this team’s success all year long.
Now that we’ve established Rondo’s capability in that department, let’s take a look specifically to see whether the C’s MVP has continued his progression against the Lakers these past 3 years. A quick look at the splits:
09-10 vs. LAL: 17.5ppg, 5rpg, 11.5apg, 45% FG 16.5 FGA/game
08-09 vs. LAL: 11 ppg, 5.5rpg, 12.0apg, 37% FG 13.5 FGA/game
That my friends, is what we call progress. In defending Rondo the last 3 years, it’s clear Phil Jackson’s gameplan has been to make Rondo shoot, while willing to live and die with those consequences.
The problem with having that kind of mentality for LA this year is the fact Rondo is relishing upon the opportunity to be aggressive this year, which enables him to wreak more havoc all over the floor. For example, take note of those Field Goal Attempts per game against the Lakers for the last 2 years. Those averages of 16.5 and 13.5 attempts were the most shots Rondo averaged against any team during those two seasons.
That attacking mindset has carried over into this postseason where Rondo is averaging 13.5 shots/game. This has also been a consistent reality, given that he has taken 10 shots in all but one game this postseason and that one game was the Miami blowout. The guy has just been all over the floor on the offensive end and it’s opened up opportunities for his teammates who have thrived from the outside.
The offense has come from other places as well ,as Rondo’s aggression has led to him getting to the free throw line in 15 of the team’s 17 playoff games as well. He’s been bruised and battered throughout this run, leading the NBA with 41 minutes per game during this postseason.
Rondo has also shown some regression during this run in certain parts of game, perhaps due to additional wear and tear from those league leading minutes. He’s getting to the line 5.6 times/game but he’s also shooting just 57 percent from the stripe in his last 10 games, which is back below his season average from the charity stripe.
Rondo’s outside shooting is also a clear concern, especially from the 10-15 foot range. During the regular season, Rondo shot a terrific 46.9% from this region of the floor, but has regressed to shooting just 27% during this postseason run. Woof.
Moving outside a little further, Rondo is shooting his 16-23 footer at a 33 percent clip, the same number he did during the regular season. Number 9 is much more willing to take these kind of open looks during this offseason as compared to 2 years ago, but it’s still not in the C’s best interest for the outside jumper to be a consistent part of this team’s offense. Clearly, Rondo is at his best when he is attacking the bucket and setting up his teammates.
So how will Phil Jackson decide to defend this menace on the floor? He mentioned in practice yesterday that it would be a rotating cast of the young point guards at his disposal on the bench in Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown to go along with the veteran Derek Fisher. Kobe Bryant obviously is a possibility, but even he declined to comment on the team’s gameplan for number 9.
Whatever Phil decides, there’s no denying though, for the Lakers this year, Rondo can no longer be ignored. That reality makes this Celtic team, despite what the numbers may say, a tougher one to guard than the ‘08 version.