Lakers coach Frank Vogel fell back on a favorite phrase to explain how difficult it is to quantify the contributions of veteran point guard Rajon Rondo and why it would be wrong to judge Rondo’s efforts based solely on the numbers that appear in a box score.
“His impact’s always measured in swag with our team,” Vogel said, smiling. “He elevates the group’s confidence every time he’s on the floor.”
Rondo brought a dose of smarts, a splash of finesse and a dash of swagger to the Lakers on Friday in the opener of their Western Conference final series against the Denver Nuggets. He collected seven points and nine assists and made two steals in nearly 22 minutes in their 126-114 victory, numbers that only hint at his success and the harmony he created while working in concert with his teammates.
It was a noteworthy night for the Lakers, who had lost the first game in each of their two previous playoff series in the NBA bubble, and equally noteworthy for Rondo, who helped ensure they wouldn’t start out with a deficit again.
His feed to a marauding Anthony Davis for a dunk that put the Lakers ahead 98-76 in the third quarter was the 1,023rd playoff assist of Rondo’s career, moving him past Michael Jordan and into the top 10 in NBA history. In the fourth quarter, with the Lakers far enough ahead to dampen the spirits of even the famously never-say-die Nuggets, Rondo eluded Mason Plumlee along the baseline and scored on a gorgeous floater that went above the backboard and took a high, arcing path into the net, an instant highlight in a game that was crammed with eye-popping examples of the Lakers’ domination from the second quarter onward.
“Just another stellar Rondo performance for us,” Vogel said during a postgame videoconference. “His ability to compete on the defensive end and bark out coverages and quarterback that end energizes our group. And then offensively, his ability to orchestrate and quarterback the offense just settles everybody down, and he’s able to create good looks for those around him and the group usually succeeds when he’s out there.”
Rondo appeared genuinely touched when asked during a TV interview about his ascent of the playoff assists list. Ahead of him, in ninth place, is Kobe Bryant, at 1,040. “Mention my name with Isiah [Thomas] and Mike, it’s definitely a humbling experience and feeling,” Rondo said. “I’m going to soak it all in tonight and get back and watch film.
“Obviously that’s a teammate award, so I can’t thank my teammates enough. Those guys make the shots and they’re allowing me to push the ball and trust them with the ball and they’re making the shots. It’s a team effort.”
Speaking to reporters later, Rondo added of his new top-10 status, “It just means that I played with a lot of great players. I can’t take a lot of the credit, even though my job is to pass the ball, but at the end of the day you don’t get an assist if someone doesn’t put it in the basket. I’ve been in the game a long time and played with a lot of great players and those guys have made me look pretty good.”
He looked like poetry in motion on that floater, a shot he said he hadn’t practiced in five years. “I got lucky tonight,” he said. “My main objective was to get the ball above the backboard and give it an arc and give it a chance to go in.
“I was just trying to get around outside of Plumlee. I knew with the angle I would have, I would have to use a high arc on the ball, a little bit of touch. I think it might be my first floater all playoffs, so it felt good to go in.”
Rondo, 34, averaged 7.1 points and 5.0 assists per game in 48 regular-season games. He fractured his right thumb during a practice in early July in Orlando, Fla., and had to leave the bubble to undergo surgery. He missed the Lakers’ first-round playoff series against Portland, sitting out the first two games because of the surgery and three more games because of back spasms. He played all five games against Houston, breaking out for 21 points in just over 30 minutes during the Lakers' 112-110 win in Game 3 on Sept. 8.
He was listed as questionable for Friday’s game because of those back spasms but he showed no signs of any problems. He’s diligent about taking care of himself, to the point where he said he has skipped the golf outings and fishing trips that other players have turned to as diversions from bubble life. Rondo was impressed by Kevin Garnett’s exertions in the weight room when they were teammates with the Boston Celtics, and that example stuck with him. LeBron James’ discipline about conditioning also hit home with Rondo. “I try to take notes from everybody I played with in the past,” Rondo said.
Others can take notes from him, and not just about his swagger. His focused approach to these playoffs is worth copying, too. “We didn’t come here just to put on a show,” he said. “We want to execute and follow through with the game plan as far as winning a championship, and tonight we just got one step closer, that’s all.”
Elliott reported from Los Angeles.