Can Rajon Rondo Prevent Another Clippers' Playoff Implosion?

A. Sherrod BlakelyContributor IApril 28, 2021

LA Clippers guard Rajon Rondo (4) works the ball against New Orleans Pelicans guard Eric Bledsoe in the first half of an NBA basketball game in New Orleans, Monday, April 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

It was 2017 and the top-seeded Boston Celtics had lost the first two games of their first-round series, both at home, to the eighth-seeded Chicago Bulls, who were led by a familiar face: ex-Celtic Rajon Rondo.

No surprise to the Celtics faithful, who were quite familiar with "Playoff Rondo" stepping his game up in the postseason.

However, a broken right thumb in Game 2 would sideline him for the rest of the series and, in doing so, rob Chicago of any real shot at an upset.

Boston went on to win the next four games against the Rondo-less Bulls.

As much as the narrative in that series centered around Boston's comeback, Chicago's success with Rondo and struggles without him added another chapter to the lore of Playoff Rondo.

League executives believe the four-time All-Star may be facing his greatest challenge to date in helping bring a championship to the Los Angeles Clippers, a franchise that has never advanced past the second round of the playoffs. 

Playoff Rondo has helped lift a number of franchises to great heights, the last being the Los Angeles Lakers, who emerged as NBA champs inside the bubble last season. 

Are the neighboring Clippers next?

While a wrist injury has limited him with the Clippers, NBA scouts and executives certainly believe in the power of Playoff Rondo, whose impact they think will be a key factor in the Clippers' postseason journey.

The Clippers are 8-2 in games he has played this season. In those 10 games, his plus/minus has either broken even at zero or been positive nine times, a statistical reminder that when he's on the floor, good things tend to happen.

"I didn't want to believe in Playoff Rondo, because I always thought he was pretty damn good in the regular season," an Eastern Conference executive said. "But you can't help but notice pretty much every year come playoff time, that guy … he becomes a major problem."

And while the Clippers certainly loved what sixth-man star Lou Williams brought to the team, trading him has been viewed by league executives as an upgrade for the Clippers because of what Rondo brings to the game that the Clippers with Williams were lacking. 

Lack of leadership has been a topic among league executives when asked about areas in which the Clippers need to improve.

They're not the only ones who see the addition of Rondo as a much-needed upgrade in the leadership department.

"He's a leader by nature," Paul George recently told reporters. "We know what he stands for, we know what he's about. We want everything that he brings."

Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

That leadership that George speaks of was lacking in the bubble last year when the Clippers blew a 3-1 series lead to the Denver Nuggets in the second round of the playoffs. 

The fallout from the disappointing finish included the firing of Doc Rivers, Rondo's former coach in Boston (he would soon resurface as head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers).

Kawhi Leonard, a two-time NBA champion and two-time Finals MVP, doubled down on George's comments about Rondo.

"He's a point guard that's been there before in previous championship runs," he told reporters. "He's gonna give us that veteran mentality, the experience, and giving us another ball-handling playmaker that can attack the rim and make the defense collapse."

Not only does adding Rondo strengthen the Clippers' chances of making a deep playoff run, but it also likely improves their odds of keeping Leonard around beyond his current contract. The five-time All-Star has a player option for the 2021-22 season. George's future with the Clippers is less uncertain after he signed a four-year max extension in December that will guarantee him about $225 million over the next five years.

Rondo's greatest strength—getting easier shots for Leonard and George—is one of the biggest reasons scouts are bullish on his ability to make a significant impact on the Clippers come playoff time.

Throw in head coach Tyronn Lue, who won a pair of titles (2000 and 2001) as a player and another two as an assistant coach (Boston, 2008) and head coach (Cleveland, 2016), and this Clippers team has legitimate visions of hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy this summer.

However, one league scout cautioned that if you're banking on seeing high-scoring Rondo show up in Clipperland this postseason, you are going to be disappointed. 

"Playoff Rondo is real, but he doesn't raise his game up the same way he has in the past," a Western Conference scout said. "For starters, he's not built to play the kind of major minutes he used to anymore. So now, you gotta get Playoff Rondo a little bit here and a little bit there. You can't get the big chunks anymore."

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Both scouts and executives point to Rondo's torn ACL in 2013 as the turning point to his playoff impact, while still significant, not being what it was before the injury. 

Before the torn ACL, Rondo appeared in 92 playoff games (all with the Celtics). In those games, he averaged 14.5 points, 9.2 assists and 6.0 rebounds while shooting 44.5 percent from the field—all better than his career numbers. 

Since the injury, Rondo has made just 29 playoff appearances (16 of which came in the bubble with the Lakers last year), averaging just 9.6 points, 8.3 assists and 5.4 rebounds. 

"The numbers may be down, but with the right kind of players around him, he still can be the X-factor and get you over the hump," an Eastern Conference scout said. "We saw that in the bubble last year."

Rondo's best postseason game for the Lakers last year was the NBA Finals-clinching Game 6 victory in which he had 19 points (that was more than he scored in Games 3, 4 and 5 combined) on 8-of-11 shooting to go with four rebounds and four assists.

"He may only play 10, 15, 20 minutes. But for those minutes, you can't tell him he's not the best player on the floor," the Eastern Conference scout said. "And most of the time, he backs it up with his play."

And that's trouble for opponents, many of whom have seen the power of Playoff Rondo up close and personal.