Clippers’ Rondo in for Bigger Role Against Booker-Led Suns

Rajon Rondo

Getty Rondo goes for the strip on Booker

Back in late March, when the L.A. Clippers traded veteran guard Lou Williams to Atlanta for underperforming veteran guard Rajon Rondo, they did so with an eye toward a deep postseason run.

Williams, three times the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year, was a fan favorite and could still score the ball, averaging 12.1 points in just 21 minutes before the trade. But Rondo, it was believed, would add greater value through his renowned basketball IQ and extensive playoff experience (121 games, 105 starts + two rings) and return some swagger to a squad still derided for their epic meltdown against Denver in the previous Western Conference Semifinals.

Furthermore, outside of the intangibles, Rondo would strengthen a Clippers backcourt desperate for a true point guard — one who could provide floor leadership and pace while lessening the burden of ball-handling and playmaking from wings Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Starting point guard Patrick Beverley, already behind the 8-ball offensively, had become increasingly fragile (sidelined for 16 games prior to Rondo’s arrival, eventually 35 on the season) and his backup, Reggie Jackson, fared better as a shooting guard and was not to be trusted defensively.

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“Our biggest team need we felt [was] an orchestrator,” said Clippers president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank at the time. “We needed someone who can really help elevate everyone’s game. And Lou is one of our better playmakers, but Rondo brings a skill set we didn’t have.” And Frank was certain about what Rondo would bring come playoff time.

“Know that Playoff Rondo is a real thing,” continued Frank. “It’s because he dials it up and he becomes even more locked in and it has a very contagious effect.”

But that was then and this is now. The Clippers have indeed made a deep postseason run — the deepest in franchise history, in fact — but outside of the first four games in Round 1, when Rondo averaged seven points and 5.8 assists in two wins and two losses against Dallas, the 15-year veteran has struggled to find minutes.

However, with Kawhi Leonard currently out for who knows how long, and facing a Phoenix team led by burgeoning superstar guard Devin Booker, Rondo’s role has already re-emerged.

Rondo’s Game 1 Minutes a Sign of Things to Come

Speaking to reporters during practice Monday, 24 hours after the Clippers dropped Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals to the Suns, head coach Ty Lue was asked about Rondo, specifically why he played the entire fourth quarter in the series opener after barely playing in the previous five games against Utah.

“We were about to make a substitution, and he just made a three in the corner,” said Lue. “And then I just like his pace. I think when Reggie goes out of the game, when PG is out of the game, we don’t have Kawhi to play through. So I think we need his pace and the way he generates shots for Luke Kennard, Nic Batum, finding (DeMarcus) Cousins a lot.

“I think his pace is very important,” continued Lue, “especially when you lose a scorer like Kawhi, who is our leading scorer on the team. You need somebody who is going to generate pace and generate shots for other guys, as well.”

In 22 minutes of Game 1, Rondo dished out seven assists, including one to Cousins for a rim-rocking dunk over Dario Saric, and his eight points were the most since his 11 against Dallas in the season’s first playoff game. Rondo was also perfect from behind the arc, 2-for-2, a good sign for Lue who has noticed hesitation from Rondo when it comes to shooting the long ball.

“He’s going to be very important in this series. We understand that. Like I said, he’s got to be confident taking his shots,” Lue said. “But he brings more than shooting: his IQ, pace, getting guys shots, a vocal leader. We need all that. It doesn’t come from just making shots and scoring the basketball. We need all the other intangibles that he brings.”

Rondo, however, struggled to defend Booker. But the same could be said for anyone in a Clippers’ jersey, including defensive standouts Beverley and Terance Mann, and the truth is there’s really not much anyone can do against a guy as hot as Booker was — posting his first career triple-double and becoming only the ninth player in NBA history to have a 40-point triple-double in the playoffs. Rondo was -6 in the fourth quarter and -11 on the game.

Rondo and Paul Could Have a Date With Destiny

If Rondo continues to get minutes against Phoenix, things could get very interesting when Suns guard Chris Paul returns to the lineup. Paul, who last week tested positive for COVID-19 and is currently unavailable for action out under the league’s protocol, has a spotted history with Rondo.

Back in October of 2018, when Rondo was with the Los Angeles Lakers and Paul the Houston Rockets, Rondo was suspended three games for spitting in Paul’s face and landing a punch before players and officials stepped in. The punch, which came after Paul jabbed a finger in Rondo’s face, was obvious, but Rondo claimed that the spit was unintentional.

“Of course, the NBA went with his side because I got three games and he got two,” Rondo told ESPN. “Everyone wants to believe Chris Paul is a good guy. They don’t know he’s a horrible teammate. They don’t know how he treats people.”

And more recently, in late April, following a physical and chippy Clippers’ loss to the Suns — a game in which Rondo correctly deciphered a Paul play call — Rondo refused to even utter his counterpart’s name.

“No. 3 on the other team yelled it out quickly and loud and I just kind of read it back to my teammates,” Rondo told reporters.