'He's Just in a Different Mode': Rajon's 'Playoff Rondo' Legend Keeps Growing

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistApril 19, 2018

PORTLAND, OR - APRIL 17: Rajon Rondo #9 of the New Orleans Pelicans handles the ball against the Portland Trail Blazers in Game Two of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2018 NBA Playoffs on April 17, 2018 at the Moda Center Arena in Portland, Oregon. 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. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images)
Sam Forencich/Getty Images

PORTLAND, Ore. — Exactly a year ago, Rajon Rondo was in this same position.

After an up-and-down season with the Chicago Bulls that included an extended benching, Rondo transformed in the playoffs. He was stellar in the first two games of the first round, as the Bulls stunned the top-seeded Boston Celtics to take a 2-0 series lead on the road.

That he was playing against his former team, in a city where he won a championship in 2008 and was a part of several deep postseason runs, made it easy to buy into a trend: No matter how frustrating the veteran point guard is during the regular season, his unique combination of generational basketball intellect and craftiness will be more effective in the playoffs.

The "Playoff Rondo" narrative only grew in subsequent days, as he suffered a season-ending thumb injury before Game 3 and the Bulls' fortunes immediately unraveled. They lost the next four games in a row, as they were unable to replace Rondo's contributions with an assortment of less-talented backups.

One year later, Rondo is starting on a sixth-seeded New Orleans Pelicans team that has taken a 2-0 series lead on the road against the No. 3 seed Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference quarterfinals.

Randy L. Rasmussen/Associated Press

Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday were the stars of the Pelicans' first two wins against the Blazers, but Rondo was also integral. He racked up 17 assists in Game 1—the same number as Portland had as a team—and came just one assist shy of a triple-double in Game 2, with 16 points, 10 rebounds and nine dimes.

And so continues the legend of Playoff Rondo, one of the strangest trends in the NBA.

Ask anybody who's coached or played with Rondo in his 12-year career, and they'll all tell you the same thing: He's one of the smartest ever to play the game. He has a singular obsession with studying film, and he sees the game several plays ahead of everybody else on the floor.

His abrasiveness can rub teammates and coaches the wrong way—just ask Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle—and pundits often accuse him of hunting assists to pad his gaudy averages. But his younger teammates in Chicago swore by him as a teammate and mentor, and his experience and demeanor have been a calming force for a Pelicans team making an unlikely playoff push after losing All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins to a season-ending Achilles injury in January.

"He's one of the smartest guys I've ever been around," Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said last week. "I've had the opportunity to coach Steph [Curry] and Chris Paul and Steve Nash and Grant Hill. So you're talking about extremely smart players, and he's right there with those guys. He has a way of giving confidence to the other guys. He makes them believe in themselves, even if they're struggling. He has a tendency to go to a guy and try to pick him up. Those are the kinds of things that, as coaches, you really can't do and only a guy like that can. I know it's like an old cliche, but having a guy like that is like having an extra assistant coach."

Pelicans forward Nikola Mirotic saw Playoff Rondo firsthand last season in Chicago. He knows Rondo's approach changes on this stage, making him uniquely equipped to lead a team in the postseason.

"It's true," Mirotic said. "I had that experience with him last year when we played in Boston. It's just completely different the way he approaches the game. You can see him now, talking to the guys and locking in."

PORTLAND, OR - APRIL 14: Rajon Rondo #9 of the New Orleans Pelicans makes a call during the game against the Portland Trail Blazers in Game One of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2018 NBA Playoffs on April 14, 2018 at the Moda Center in Po
Cameron Browne/Getty Images

For Rondo, it comes down to his obsessive preparation. In the playoffs, there are no back-to-backs, and players have to scout only one team's film. While every player watches film, not all of them have Rondo's innate, savant-like understanding of an opponent's every nuance. It's a reputation he shares with few others in recent NBA history, the likes of Nash and LeBron James.

"To me, it's like having answers to the test," Rondo said. "You study these guys and you learn tendencies. Even though basketball is off of reaction and skills, guys for the most part tend to do things over and over again, and you watch those tendencies and learn from that."

Rondo's approach hasn't worked at every NBA stop of his career, or with every coach he's played under. His relationship with Celtics head coach Doc Rivers was rocky at times, but their collective competitiveness won out and led to an extended run in Boston with the Kevin Garnett-Ray Allen-Paul Pierce core.

He clashed with Carlisle during his half-season in Dallas in 2014-15, as his desire to call plays and control the offense were at odds with the coach's hands-on approach. Things got so bad by the end that he was ultimately exiled from the Mavericks during the playoffs, with his teammates voting not to give him a share of the playoff bonus pool, according to ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon.

Rondo's single season in Chicago was the most bizarre of his career. The "Three Alphas" pairing with Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade was an awkward on-court fit, and Rondo's reaction to his December benching led many to believe he would seek a buyout. He ultimately returned to Chicago's rotation, however, and he eventually rejoined its starting lineup.

By the playoffs, Rondo had become so crucial to the Bulls' success that they folded once he got hurt. According to many in the organization, Chicago likely would have re-signed him this past summer had it not decided to trade Butler and undergo a full-blown rebuild.

Gentry has largely taken the same successful approach to managing Rondo as Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg did last season. He'll offer his input on play calls, but he's fully aware that in most cases, Rondo knows best.

"He takes every practice and every game and puts it on his computer and watches it," Gentry said. "He wants to know the first play we run. That's just the kind of guy that he is. If you want to have him on your team, you have to believe in him enough to understand that he's going to put guys in the right position. When you're out on the floor, sometimes you have a better feel than the coach. My philosophy has always been, if I call a play and he calls a different play, his play will always succeed."

Rondo appreciates the leeway that Gentry has given him. Combined with the added time to prepare for the Blazers without any distractions, it's led to yet another chapter in this beguiling tale.

Rondo doesn't like to acknowledge the "Playoff Rondo" narrative, but given the results, it's tough for even him to deny.

"Knowing guys' tendencies has been a habit of mine," Rondo said. "'Playoff Rondo' is pretty much about the team allowing me to be me and trusting me. It's not just something that happens overnight. It's a matter of trust."

The series shifts to New Orleans on Thursday, where the Pelicans will have the chance to take a commanding 3-0 series lead over the Blazers. The collective dominance of Davis and Holiday in the first two games have led them to that point, as well as the struggles of Blazers guard Damian Lillard.

But Playoff Rondo is the engine, the undefinable ingredient that continues to get results against all odds.

"He's up all night watching film," Davis said. "He's calling their plays out before they even have a chance to run it. He's just in a different mode."

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