Whether the Lakers win the championship this season or not, Anthony Davis’ game-winning three-pointer in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals secured his place in purple and gold folklore. Twitter was on fire after the buzzer-beater, the Lakers bench exploded in celebration, and co-owner Jeanie Buss said she “let out a scream I didn’t even know I was capable of.”
You know who didn’t lose their mind? Rajon Rondo, the point guard who not only made the right read but delivered the perfect pass. If you watch the replay, after Davis’ shot sent everyone else into a frenzy, Rondo casually walks onto the court like a man who already knew the outcome.
After all, this is the playoffs … and this is his time.
“I’m able to focus a lot better on one particular team and study their tendencies,” he said about the “Playoff Rondo” moniker. “In the regular season you are playing a different team pretty much every other day. In the playoffs you normally get two days to get your body right and study film so it’s just a different dynamic.”
Hall of Fame point guard Isiah Thomas agrees.
“You play 82 games and you’re moving around and you’re traveling and you have different matchups every other day,” he said. “In the playoffs you get total immersion.
“Think of it this way: In school throughout the day you’re bouncing from one class to another. You go from history, to math, to English, to science but you don’t get total immersion. You don’t get five hours of history class. But in the playoffs you get to focus on one team. I get to study this opponent for the next 10 days. So he gets to spend 10 days in the library on one subject.”
If it’s that simple, why do so many players perform worse in the postseason?
“You know there are A students, B students, C students and so on,” Thomas said. “Throughout the history of sports coverage, athletes have only been viewed from the neck down, especially Black and brown athletes. There has been little recognition for the genius you bring.”
What a remarkable paradigm shift. “Playoff Rondo” doesn’t play harder than “Regular Season Rondo.” Instead, it’s just the time of year in which he gets to show his intelligence, which, ironically, has led to a decline of his Q-rating.
“Smart people in sports have a problem,” said Thomas, a two-time champion and 1990 Finals MVP. “If you can think critically and you ask questions most coaches are going to be intimidated. Imagine being a professor and Albert Einstein comes in as a student, it’s like that.”
When it’s all said and done Davis probably will likely be headed to the Hall of Fame. LeBron James and Dwight Howard are definitely in. I would argue this Lakers squad has a fourth member bound for Springfield, Mass., and it’s Rondo. He’s top 15 in assists, has a handful of All-Star appearances, made multiple All-Defensive teams, has led the league in multiple categories and, of course, he’s got one ring and is currently working on another. However the biggest reason why he’s a Hall of Famer is based on something ESPN’s Travis Rodgers always asks: “Can you tell the story of an era without him? If basketball culture gives you a name like ‘Playoff Rondo,’ I would think the answer to that question is ‘no.’”
Lakers guard Rajon Rondo forces Rockets guard Austin Rivers into an awkward shot with his defense during Game 3 on Sept. 8. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)
Ryan Hollins, the former UCLA star who played for the Celtics during the 2011-12 season, has this perspective: “You have to understand there was a Playoff Paul [Pierce], a Playoff Kevin [Garnett] a Playoff Ray [Allen], a Playoff Rondo. Like great players just knew to take it to another level in the postseason. That’s just part of the equation.
“I’ve always said when I played with him [Rondo], he had the type of talent that could’ve been the MVP of the league. He could do whatever he wanted but he was always like, ‘I’m just gonna do what’s best for my team’. He wasn’t appreciated as a scorer because he wasn’t asked to be a scorer but he could. I saw it, when we needed him to score more he did.”
Hollins said Rondo is a lot like James in the sense that it’s his basketball IQ, and not his physical talent, that sets him apart.
“When Rondo left Boston his reputation got tarnished,” Hollins said. “There’s just a lot of people he rubbed the wrong way after that but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t right in what he was saying, they just didn’t want to hear it. But I tell you what, he was always pushing to do what was best for winning.”
Which is why Thomas and Hollins both said Rondo would be a great coach one day. You know who also feels that way? Doc Rivers, his coach in Boston.
“His IQ is insane,” Rivers said. “He got the [Playoff Rondo] reputation from being big in big games [like] Game 6 2008 NBA Finals. He was still young, wasn’t saving it yet for the playoffs. Having said that, my guess is playing along side KG, Ray and Paul he probably learned a lot watching them.”
In that close-out game Rivers referred to, Rondo had 21 points, eight assists, seven rebounds and six steals in 32 minutes against the Lakers. This year, he had a similar stat line when the Lakers took control in Game 3 of the Houston Rockets series.
Rondo agreed with Rivers’ assessment that playing with Hall of Famers early in his career helped him develop into the cerebral player that he is today. He also said moments like Game 6 in the 2008 Finals or Game 2 in 2020 Western Conference finals are the kind he lives for as a player.
In the playoffs.
“I would love to be a coach or a GM one day,” he said. “I love the game and all that it’s given me.
“But right now I still love competing and trying to do whatever it takes to win championships. I love sharing my experience with the young guys because that’s what was given to me. It’s important to pay it forward. I don’t want to look back saying ‘I wish I could have…’ so that’s why I give it all I have now. I want the feeling of another championship at least one more time. Maybe that’s what people see in the playoffs. I don’t think I’m different than in the regular season and I don’t know what the stats are but I know I want to win.”
There’s no better way of making your case for the Hall than winning when it matters most. For Rondo, like everyone else, that means doing so in the playoffs.