Since Rajon Rondo signed his first contract with the Lakers in 2018, fans have been waiting for their opportunity to see “Playoff Rondo” in action. Their first opportunity was supposed to come on Aug. 18, but Rondo suffered a fracture to his right thumb in July that kept him on the sidelines for the entirety of the first round.
“It was very frustrating,” Rondo said of the injury. “Any injury is a setback. But in my career, 14 years, you’re going to have those, and everything happens for a reason. Obviously, the Man upstairs is talking to me, and I had to be still for another moment.
“My teammates were texting and wishing me luck, and I was on every Zoom call with the coaches. So I was still a part of the team, it’s just a matter of me (not) being there physically. I never felt like I was away from the team, and I was able to stay locked in with those guys through Zoom.”
But as much as Rondo appreciated the lengths the Lakers — especially Kurt Rambis — went to keep him involved, there wasn’t anything they could do to feed his hunger to get back onto the court with his teammates.
“You want to be a part of it,” Rondo said. “I hate being away from my team, but what I loved and missed the most was competing. I’m able to do that now, and I just love competition, and I was able to kind of stay locked in with the coaches meetings, and also learn from a possibly NBA championship-winning coaching staff. If I do want to do that after my career, being a coach, (I wanted to) continue to learn and be a sponge.”
Rondo made his return to the court for the first time in six months on Friday and he had a hard time shaking the rust off. In 24:32, Rondo scored 8 points on 3-9 shooting from the field, had as many turnovers as he had assists and posted a plus-minus of -10.
In the two games he’s played since, Rondo has averaged 15.5 points per game on 60% shooting from the field, including 40% shooting from behind the arc, while contributing 9 assists and 3 steals per game. Additionally, his +17.5 plus-minus is the highest on the team over the last two games. Markieff Morris (+12.5) is a distant second.
In layman’s terms, he’s been really good, which Frank Vogel attributes to the amount of work Rondo put in behind-the-scenes to get back onto the court and compete at a high level.
“Obviously when you miss as much time as he missed, you don’t know how quickly he’s going to be able to get his legs under him,” Vogel said. “But I do know that he worked extremely hard before he came back into the bubble and then when he came back into the bubble. So hard actually that he hurt his back a little bit.
“But he recovered quickly from that and he’s been really, really persistent with his work. When he gets his leg under him, you know what kind of gamer he is this time of year, and he’s been spectacular the last two games.”
Rondo’s breakout performance came on Tuesday, when the Lakers played the Rockets in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals. In 30:07, Rondo tallied 21 points — including two timely 3-pointers in the fourth quarter — and 9 assists. Rondo has had eight games with 20 or more points in the last three years; two of them have come in the postseason.
Rondo may resent the idea that he plays better in the postseason than in the regular season, but Anthony Davis has seen enough to buy into the hype.
“I experienced it firsthand a couple years ago in New Orleans, and it’s real. Playoff Rondo is real,” Anthony Davis said after Tuesday’s game. “His intensity picks up. He wants to guard the best perimeter guy. You’ll see he guarded James and Russ sometimes ... He’s shooting the ball very well, making the right passes.
“His IQ is on another level. We’ve got the two best IQ guys in the game in him and LeBron on the floor at the same time, which is tough for defenses, and he’s making the right plays. Playoff Rondo is real, and he showed up tonight.”
Out of respect for Rondo, LeBron James didn’t play into the Playoff Rondo hype, but he did acknowledge that Rondo’s played at an entirely different level over the last two games.
“Hey listen, whatever makes ‘Do continue to play like he’s playing, then I don’t buy into it either,” James said. “But he’s been exceptional these last two games. Obviously that first game, he hadn’t played in a while so it was a fell out game for him just like the rest of us, but these last few games are everything that we imagine (him) being in the postseason.
“And for me, being in the playoffs and being on the opposing side of him for so many years, I knew what he was up, especially in the postseason ... To now be on the same side as him ... It’s perfect.”
To Rondo, though, it’s not that romantic.
“All we did was do our jobs,” Rondo said “We won two games. We’re the No. 1 seed so, in my eyes, that’s expected. They got us the first game. These last two rounds, these teams have gotten off to a good start, obviously winning the first games. We made great adjustments, the coaching staff is doing a hell of a job making adjustments and we’re capitalizing on them.
“The best thing about this experience is being able to compete at a high level and play each other over and over again. It’s a chess match: we make adjustments and they make adjustments. That’s what I drive off of and that’s what I love about competing.”