For the second straight game, the Lakers came back in the fourth quarter to beat the Houston Rockets, this time 112-102 to take a 2-1 series lead. And for the second straight game, it’s hard to believe they could have done it without Rondo.
The veteran point guard whose shooting and defense have frequently drawn the ire of Lakers fans in his two seasons in Los Angeles has made major contributions in key moments against Houston, despite not playing for nearly six months after a pandemic, a broken thumb and, in the Lakers’ first-round series, back spasms.
There is only one explanation for this, and Anthony Davis said it best.
“It’s real,” Anthony Davis said. “Playoff Rondo is real.”
Davis, who played with Playoff Rondo during their days in New Orleans, isn’t the only member of the Lakers who envisioned Rondo living up to his name come the playoffs.
“All season I expected this, come this time of the year,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “Of course, obviously when you miss as much time as he missed, you don’t know how quickly he will get his legs under him.”
Well Frank the answer to that roughly 2 games.
In the Lakers’ Game 2 victory, Rondo played stifling defense on James Harden and knocked down a key late jumper while LeBron James dominated in the fourth. In Thursday’s sequel, it was Rondo who did the dominating. He scored or assisted on the first eight Lakers baskets of the fourth quarter, helping turn a game tied at 82 at the period break into a double-digit Lakers lead.
“These last two games is everything we’ve imagined (him) being in the postseason,” James said. “And for me, being in the playoffs and being on the opposing side of him for so many years, I knew what he was capable of, especially in the postseason.”
Playoff Rondo was coined back in his days with the Boston Celtics, over a decade ago, but it has remained a constant thing throughout.
In 2018, he teamed with Davis to help lead the New Orleans Pelicans to a surprise first-round sweep against Portland, out playing Lillard in the series.
“His intensity picks up (in the postseason). He wants to guard the best perimeter guy,” Davis said. “We see he guards James (Harden) and (Russell Westbrook) sometimes. … He’s shooting the ball very well, making the right passes, so his IQ is on another level.
“We’ve got the two best IQ guys in the game, him and LeBron, on the floor at the same time, which is tough for defenses, and he’s making the right plays.”
Davis makes a great point. When the Lakers had either Rondo or LeBron on the court, the Lakers were far and away the best team on the court. They controlled the tempo, found cutting teammates, and kept putting the Rockets defenders in difficult matchups. But in the 4th quarter Rondo picked up the intensity.
Entering the fourth quarter, the game had featured 14 lead changes and 15 ties. The Lakers never led by more than three points. But then came Rondo’s personal flurry. Just like two nights earlier, he smothered Harden defensively, forcing a turnover that led to a layup. He knocked down a pair of 3s. And when he capped the frenetic run with a finger roll at the 5:58 mark, the Lakers led 101-89.
The 34-year-old Rondo scored 12 of his 21 points and tallied five of his nine assists in the final period.
“I just took what I was given,” Rondo said. “It started on the defensive end for me. Guys found me when I was open, and I took shots with confidence and got some easy layups.”
That it came at the expense of Harden and Westbrook, two former MVPs who have both dominated Rondo’s position in recent years, only adds to the motivation.
“I love competing against the best,” Rondo said. “And right now, in our game, he (Harden) is arguably the best two guard of my time, my era. So each time I get a chance to match up with him, I look forward (to it), along with Russ. And it’s been fun.”
It was a long journey back to full health for Rondo, but he and the Lakers are basking in all the glory of their patience and hard work.
“The best thing about this experience is being able to compete at a high level, getting to play each other over and over again,” Rondo said. “It’s a chess match. We make adjustments, they make adjustments, and that’s what I thrive off of and I love.