Rajon Rondo may not like his “Playoff Rondo” nickname, but he’s more than earned it this year. The veteran guard has stepped up his game to an almost comical degree in the playoffs, and it’s paid dividends for the Lakers during their run to the NBA Finals.
In the regular season, Rondo averaged 7.1 points and 5 assists while shooting 41.8% from the field and 32.8% from three. The Lakers were 5.6 points per 100 possessions better when he sat than they were when he played.
During the playoffs, Rondo has averaged just under three more minutes per game, but massively increased his efficiency in that time, averaging 9.1 points and 7 assists while shooting 46.9% from the field and 41.5% from three. The Lakers are also slightly better when he plays than when he sits (no small feat considering he often replaces LeBron James), and his shooting percentage and 3-point percentage are both the second-highest they’ve ever been in the playoffs. At age 33, he’s also putting up the third-best box plus-minus and value over replacement player (VORP) of his postseason career.
In short, after a season of mediocre play, Rondo has been a revelation for the Lakers, and he has a theory on why.
“Obviously, the regular season and playoffs are two different types of games. Each level you have to raise your level of play,” Rondo said.
He has undoubtedly done that, but coming off of a hand injury that forced him to leave the bubble for surgery and held him out until the second round of the playoffs, even Rondo wasn’t sure he’d be able to play like this.
“I didn’t know what to expect coming back, I haven’t played ball in seven months, six, seven months. A couple injuries when I did come back,” Rondo said, referencing the back spasms he suffered from while trying to return to the court for the Lakers.
“But I’ve had a lot of belief in my work and my craft and what I’ve put in the last couple months. Coach Vogel has instilled a lot of confidence in me coming back,” Rondo said. “Saying that I play a very important role on this team, along with Rob Pelinka as well.”
Even outside of Vogel and Pelinka, the whole Lakers organization worked hard to help facilitate Rondo’s return. Vogel and the coaching staff welcomed him into their meetings while Rondo was sidelined so that he could still help the team (although Vogel joked that they “fired” Rondo when they had to kick him out once he was back on the court). Senior basketball advisor Kurt Rambis came to Florida and stayed outside of the bubble with Rondo to put him through workouts and help him try to stay in shape while he was rehabbing.
Frank Vogel says Rajon Rondo has been working out here in Orlando, but outside the bubble, with Kurt Rambis, confirming @ChrisBHaynes’ report. Vogel called Rondo and Rambis “the odd couple.”— Tania Ganguli (@taniaganguli) August 10, 2020
Rajon Rondo talks about the frustration of his July injury, and how he stayed connected to teammates and through Zoom coaching meetings. Also: “Shout out to Kurt Rambis.” pic.twitter.com/5oI0a0EATc— Kyle Goon (@kylegoon) September 9, 2020
Vogel is even defending Rondo from nicknames he doesn’t like.
“I personally don’t really like the ‘Playoff Rondo’ thing because I think it implies that he’s not good in the regular season,” Vogel said. “He’s been good for us all year. Obviously, the great players are going to play their best in the playoffs. That’s no different with Rondo, but he’s been consistent and really good for us all year.”
The numbers don’t bear that out, but that’s not really the point. Vogel has defended Rondo from criticism all year, pushing back on critiques of his analytics by saying Rondo brings the Lakers “swag” that can’t be quantified by statistics. He continued to play him and go to bat for Rondo when he wasn’t producing, something Vogel drew a ton of criticism for at the time but has undoubtedly paid off now.
“He’s been vital to our run up to this point. There’s no question about that. We are not here without him playing at such a high level,” Vogel said.
Rondo says he couldn’t have done it without Vogel and Pelinka’s support.
“Those guys from the top believed in me from day one,” Rondo said. “I just didn’t want to let my teammates down. I didn’t want to let myself down. I’m a very competitive person, and feeling like I do have an impact on this team, helping this team win.”
In the playoffs, Rondo has done that. It may have led to the resurfacing of a nickname he doesn’t enjoy, but if it also leads to the second ring he so desperately craves, he’s not going to complain.