‘Playoff Rondo’ giving Lakers a boost in return

  • Lakers and NBA reporter for ESPN.
  • Covered the Lakers and NBA for ESPNLosAngeles.com from 2009-14, the Cavaliers from 2014-18 for ESPN.com and the NBA for NBA.com from 2005-09.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals was Los Angeles Lakers guard Rajon Rondo’s first game action in 178 days and it showed — he logged a plus/minus of minus-10 in 25 minutes in the loss.

Sunday’s 117-109 win over the Houston Rockets to tie the series 1-1 was just Rondo’s second game in 180 days, and the veteran point guard pulled a complete 180. He finished with 10 points, 9 assists, 5 steals and 3 rebounds, and L.A. outscored the Rockets by 28 in the 29 minutes he was in.

“I think he was just extremely aggressive, not only offensively, but defensively — taking the challenge on James [Harden], taking the challenge on whoever he was guarding. Just trying to lead,” said LeBron James, who had 28 points, 11 rebounds and 9 assists. “I mean, that’s what ‘Do is. He’s a leader. And for us to have him back in the postseason, it’s a key for our team.”

Just like in Game 1, Rondo — who picked up the nickname ‘Do from James when they first became teammates in L.A. last season — was Lakers coach Frank Vogel’s first guard to sub in off the bench. This time around, he made an immediate impact. When he came in for James with 5:32 remaining in the first quarter, L.A. was up 10-9. By the end of the quarter, the Lakers’ lead swelled to 36-20.

Rondo had six assists and three steals in the first quarter alone and capped the run by hitting a 3-pointer with 0.9 seconds remaining.

“He comes in, he pushes the tempo, he gets guys involved and that doesn’t always show up in the stat sheet,” James said. “With ‘Do — the intangibles that he does both offensively and defensively — his nose is always around the ball and he just makes plays for us, and tonight was another example of that.”

A huge part of that first-quarter success was the chemistry Rondo found with Markieff Morris, who finished out the first playing stretch 4 next to Anthony Davis, who slid to the 5 with JaVale McGee on the bench.

Morris went 4-for-4 on his first four 3-point attempts in the first quarter, and all of them were assisted by Rondo.

“Playoff Rondo, man,” Morris said, using another one of the 34-year-old’s monikers. “He’s a floor general. He’s going to put us in our right spots. He’s going to talk to us. He’s been there before. He’s done it at all different levels and we’re happy to have him back to lead the team.”

Morris and Rondo didn’t just mesh well — they matched, both playing in the game with fresh braids, complemented by black headbands.

“I had my hair braided because I was tired of my ugly hair,” Morris said. “But we actually got it at the same time.”

As trivial as the hairstyle might seem, it is worth mentioning considering that Vogel believed it’s not just Rondo’s play but his mere presence that boosts the Lakers.

“He has such an impact,” Vogel said. “His impact on our team is measured in swag and just the confidence that he brings to our group.”

While Rondo was brought back as a free agent last summer in part because of his chemistry with Davis from their time on the New Orleans Pelicans together, he was a part of a non-Davis lineup Sunday that tore the Rockets up.

The Lakers matched small ball with small ball, using a lineup consisting of James, Rondo, Morris, Alex Caruso and Kyle Kuzma for eight minutes in Game 2 and completely dominated Houston.

That lineup outscored the Rockets 35-14 and shot 14-for-16 from the field (87.5%), assisting on 10 of those makes against just two turnovers, while also recording six steals, according to data compiled by ESPN Stats & Information.

“We built the team to be able to play in different ways and to be able to play big versus teams, to be able to play small, to be able to play in between,” said James. “We built that from the beginning and we have that, always had that, in our toolbox.”

And Sunday, once again, they had Rondo throwing a wrench in the opposing defense.

“We have to try to keep this team off guard,” Vogel said of Houston. “Obviously, he did a great job with that, kept his turnovers low, had a lot of assists.

“Just a great Rondo performance.”

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