The Lakers’ championship run has just become a sprint.
Rajon Rondo showed up.
The Lakers have just become clear title favorites.
Playoff Rondo is in the building.
In a few whirlwind moments Tuesday night in Game 3 of their second-round playoff series against the Houston Rockets, the Lakers’ biggest weakness became their strength, their biggest fear became their comfort, and their chances of plowing through the NBA Finals became huge.
Rajon Rondo did all that, and more, with a dozen points and five assists in the fourth quarter to turn a tie game into what felt like a blowout, an eventual 112-102 win that gave the Lakers a two-games-to-one series lead.
In series that are tied 1-all, the winner of Game 3 wins the series 74% of the time. This series, however, is 100% over.
And Rondo, who scored 21 points overall with nine assists, could be just getting started.
“He’s just doing a hell of a job for us,” said Kyle Kuzma, who added 14 points. “He’s just a poised Hall of Fame veteran, he’s been in these moments, he’s won rings, played in big playoff games, he knows what he’s doing; we see that and just follow our veteran.”
Yeah, they see that. They are invigorated by it. They swagger with it. They build on it. Coach Frank Vogel has often referred to Rondo as the team’s “juice” and he’s right. His smart and savvy play squeezes every bit of energy out of them.
“He’s such a smart basketball player no matter what,” Kuzma said. “He makes the right pass, he makes the right read … he just does a great job for us.”
The greatness Tuesday night began late in the third quarter with the Lakers trailing by three. With the shot clock dying, Rondo threw up a fadeaway three-point attempt that splashed in. LeBron James ended the quarter with one of his four amazing chase-down blocked shots, this one of an Austin Rivers layup, and the stage was set.
In the first minutes of the fourth quarter Rondo hit another three. Then on the next possession he hit another three. Then, with the Lakers suddenly up by seven, he reached into James Harden’s pocket and pulled out a dagger.
Guarding Harden near midcourt, he stole the ball and raced down for a layup to give the Lakers a nine-point lead and they were never threatened again.
Oh yeah, Rondo followed up on his seven-point binge by firing the ball to Alex Caruso for an open three-pointer that gave them a 10-point lead. For a brilliant stretch, he was everywhere and everything.
Afterward, Rondo, as usual, described the heroics with a shrug. This is his history. Just ask fans of the 2008 champion Boston Celtics. This is who he is. Check with those who remember the monumental playoff upset of the Portland Trail Blazers by the New Orleans Pelicans. This is what he does.
“I just took what I was given,” Rondo said. “Guys found me when I was open, I took some shots with confidence and I got some easy layups.”
As recently as last week, he wasn’t given much of anything, including a chance to contribute. Because of a hand injury suffered shortly after he entered the bubble, Rondo was appearing in his first game in six months, and he looked like it.
In his first game back, in the opening loss against the Rockets, he was a minus-10. He was lost, committing four turnovers. He looked awful.
So, as a player with the Lakers’ highest basketball IQ is wont to do, he studied film and examined tendencies. You know what happened next. In a Game 2 victory — with 10 points, nine assists and five steals — he was a plus-28.
Naturally, after playing well for a second consecutive game Tuesday, he was completely nonplussed.
“All we did was do our job,” Rondo said. “We won two games. We’re the No. 1 seed. In my eyes, that’s expected.”
What wasn’t expected was that the Lakers, inspired by Rondo, beat the Rockets at their own game. They sank only two fewer three-pointers, they had more than twice as many second-chance points, and they basically ran them all over the court.
“Our legs got a little tired,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “They upped their stuff. Too many 50-50 balls we didn’t get. Too many times we weren’t sharp.”
And too much Rondo, which lifts some of the enormous pressure off James and Anthony Davis, which is the only way they win a championship.
James scored 36, but he was needed for only seven points in the second half. Davis scored 26, but scored only one basket with no rebounds in the fourth quarter. It was a night James became the NBA all-time leader in playoff wins, yet that wasn’t even the biggest story.
When asked about defending the Lakers, D’Antoni said, “Well, it is LeBron James. And it is Anthony Davis.”
On Tuesday night, that list officially grew by one. It is also now Rajon Rondo. And the Lakers have never been scarier.
<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="Plaschke reported from Los Angeles.» data-reactid=»55″>Plaschke reported from Los Angeles.