Before the Eastern Conference Finals began, I wrote that if the Celtics happened to rip their way through Miami and into the NBA Finals, the aftermath would be Rajon Rondo’s elevation into a superstar’s stratosphere, transforming him into the rarest of rare basketball commodities. Superstars appear as the NBA’s own illuminati, secretly running operations, dictating where they play, and existing as consistent beneficiaries to preferential treatment by both league officials and members of the media.
If Boston wins—with two of the Big 3 badly hurt and Kevin Garnett running on fumes in every fourth quarter—there would be no more trade rumors. If these Celtics made it to the NBA Finals it’d be tough to tag anybody else with the “Best Point Guard Alive” label, Chris Paul included.
So far Rondo has been a revelation, most notably in his historical Game 2 box score no critic will soon forget. But iconic stage performances like that one are lauded for the very reason that they’re few and far between. We’ll probably never see something so brilliant from Rondo ever again (if we do, there’s very little doubt he’s making the Hall of Fame); for the most part, it’s unrepeatable.
But one part of his game has forced Erik Spoelstra’s head to explode in every film session and every time out. With no rim protectors or able bodies down low (save for LeBron James, who played 11 fourth quarter minutes at the center position in Game 3, but fearing foul trouble isn’t willing to take on penetrators in the customary way a 6’11″ shot blocker might), Rondo is transcending how effective one player can be in the side pick and roll. He’s too fast to be blitzed and too smart to be trapped. When the Heat switch, he licks his chops and either charges at the basket or dumps it into a mismatch.
During the regular season, nearly a third of Rondo’s shot attempts came as the ball handler in pick and roll situations. He shot 40.6%, per Synergy. According to ESPN Stats & Info, he’s shooting nearly 70% in the Eastern Conference Finals, but only 36.4% in the previous two rounds. As you can see from this play against the Sixers, when Rondo tried attacking the lane in the Semifinals he often ran into a gargantuan wall of flesh, lessening his efficiency with a difficult floater.
Then you look at what he did in Game 3, and it’s just…strange. Look at this play in particular.
As Rondo drives the lane, why is Udonis Haslem bothered by the possibility of a kick back pass? Sure it’s Garnett who’d be on the receiving end, but A) Garnett had done all his previous work in the paint and Miami’s defense should’ve welcomed a jumper, B) the Heat switched, so James was already in position to contest Garnett on the perimeter should Rondo have thrown it out there, and C) Mario Chalmers and James Jones are despicable help defenders.
Stopping Rondo from scoring is the number one adjustment Miami’s coaching staff needs to make if they want to win the series, but I’m not sure they can. Some things you simply can’t answer for—whether it be due to a lack of capable personnel or one player hitting a level of unforeseen supremacy—and right now Rondo is ripping Miami’s heart out. If the Heat can’t concoct a scheme to somehow get the ball out of his hands in the face of a screen (as the Celtics have done to Dwyane Wade), this series could go a lot longer than it looked like it would on Thursday morning. And Rondo just might come out of this whole thing a transfigured individual; an honest to goodness true superstar.