Playoff Rondo is the ultimate wild card and he's paying off for Lakers

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Vincent Goodwill
·5 min read
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The last time the world saw Playoff Rondo, Rajon Rondo basked in the silence of a shocked gym in the TD Garden, dishing out a heap of sweet revenge to his former franchise.

That was three years ago, when Rondo was a Chicago Bull and leading them halfway to an improbable first-round upset over the top-seeded Boston Celtics before his broken right thumb ended his series and the Bulls’ chances.

In the closing moments of Game 2, a longtime rival became an idol when Dwyane Wade pulled the point guard aside to say, “Hey, way to run your team tonight,” after experiencing the positive side of a Rondo playoff masterpiece.

Safe to say Rondo turned another rival into an admirer — LeBron James — in the swing game of the Lakers’ second-round series against the Houston Rockets with an unexpected performance in a 112-102 win that squarely places him at the top of important Lakers behind James and Anthony Davis.

James wouldn’t have achieved his latest accomplishment — most playoff wins by a player — without Rondo’s flurry that allowed the Lakers to pull away, and he finished with 21 points and nine assists. James emptied his personal clip with a 29-point first half, with springy legs and a streaky jumper that got hot, yet the Lakers were still nowhere near shaking a game Rockets squad gaining confidence in its small-ball strategy.

If Playoff Rondo truly exists, it was bound to show up in this atmosphere, even though he hasn’t played competitively in six months but worked doggedly to get back.

Helter skelter, more trapping, more randomness, right up Rondo’s alley. He doesn’t believe in it, but eyes don’t lie.

“Whatever makes ’Do play like he’s playing, I don’t buy into it either,” said James when told of Rondo’s apparent disbelief in the Playoff Rondo mantra. “He’s been exceptional. These last two games have been everything we’ve imagined. Being on the opposing side for him so many years, I know what he’s capable of. It’s perfect.”

The Lakers have championship aspirations but a somewhat flawed roster. They aren’t as deep as the L.A. Clippers, their wings aren’t as dependable and expecting James to be a supernova every night could be too much to ask, assuming those two meet next round.

Assuming Rondo can pull another one off like this, he unlocks a critical aspect of a Lakers team being led without James dominating the ball at all times.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLORIDA - SEPTEMBER 08: Rajon Rondo #9 of the Los Angeles Lakers drives the ball against James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets during the first quarter  in Game Three of the Western Conference Second Round during the 2020 NBA Playoffs at AdventHealth Arena at the ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on September 08, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Lakers point guard Rajon Rondo had 21 points and nine assists in a Game 3 win over the Houston Rockets. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

And he has moments like this so infrequently that you can’t quite prepare for it, but you have to be on guard for it. With five minutes remaining, a former benefactor of Playoff Rondo left the arena. Clippers coach Doc Rivers had seen enough, giving him one more headache to worry about.

Rondo’s competitive stubbornness can get him in trouble, but the return on the risk is so glorious at times. He disrupted the Rockets’ rhythm in Game 2 with five steals, and the Lakers have outscored the Rockets by 35 points over the last two games.

Leaving him open for outside jumpers in the regular season is a totally different proposition when the games truly matter, as he turns the biggest detractors into silenced critics. He won’t hit every big shot, but he usually hits enough to steal a game a team probably wouldn’t win otherwise.

And in a hotly contested series such as this, in a game in which both James Harden and Russell Westbrook dropped over 30 and looked comfortable doing it, it would’ve been a game that belonged to the Rockets if not for Rondo’s randomness.

Lakers coach Frank Vogel has been quietly criticized for riding with Rondo, but the ultimate wild card paid off.

“It frees up AD and LeBron from doing too much,” Vogel said. “He can orchestrate a game like few others. Everybody else feeds off his energy.”

And his genius. Rondo is a savant, a straight-A student of sorts who needs to be challenged to bring out his best work. Challenged, or ignored by the Rockets, who had to play the numbers game when he was open. But when he’s on, there’s an extra bounce to his game, and he finds a way to bring out the best in the Lakers when you don’t expect much from them. It can’t be a coincidence Kyle Kuzma has looked ready for prime time the last two games, or that Markieff Morris caught fire from 3-point range in Game 2 — the first sign of Playoff Rondo.

If there’s a pressure that comes with playing with James — or even for James — there’s probably a subsequent freedom Rondo brings to the table.

“I love competition. I love competing against the best,” Rondo said. “It’s been fun. It’s a chess match. It’s what I thrive off of.”

Whether it’s chess or Connect Four, he takes no prisoners, and his screechy voice is never far from earshot if you pick up a rebound and he wants to run. His senses are heightened in a way that cannot be replicated in a mundane regular-season game.

"I experienced it first-hand. It's real. Playoff Rondo is real,” said Davis, who won his only playoff series in New Orleans with Rondo. “The intensity picks up ... his IQ is on another level. Playoff Rondo is real and he showed up tonight."

Rondo has no problem turning detractors into believers, or rivals into followers. As much as these unconventional playoffs are the ultimate outlier, someone like Rondo basks in the dimmed spotlight while more talented counterparts struggle.

Leave it to James to describe Rondo perfectly.

“Some people are built for this moment, some people are not.”

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