PORTLAND, Ore. — Through all of the screaming fans at Moda Center on Saturday night (April 14), there was one voice from the New Orleans Pelicans’ bench that could be heard above them all.
It was point guard Rajon Rondo, back in his element on the playoff stage, barking out orders to his teammates the way he has all season. It’s one of the elements that has made him indispensable for the Pelicans, even though it seemed he might have been his way out of the league before signing with them last summer.
“I try to make sure I’m always talking to my guys,” Rondo said in March. “Either you love or you hate it. That’s just me.”
The 12-year veteran built a legacy as one of the top point guards of his generation during his time with the Boston Celtics. But once it was time to locate a new home, he had trouble finding a place where his skill set could be fully appreciated.
Rondo was traded to the Dallas Mavericks during the 2014-15 season and had his time with the team brought to an unceremonious end once he was sent home during the playoffs after clashing with coach Rick Carlisle.
He joined the Sacramento Kings the following season and led the NBA in assists, but it went virtually unnoticed on a 33-win team.
He spent a tumultuous year with the Chicago Bulls in 2016-17 before showing flashes of brilliance in the playoffs, only to have his season come to an end because of a broken thumb.
Rondo didn’t have many suitors after getting waived by the Bulls, but his landing with the Pelicans on a one-year deal was a natural fit because of his relationship with center DeMarcus Cousins. It turned out to be a great deal for both sides.
He has become the veteran sage for a squad on the rise, and he tied a franchise record with 17 assists in Saturday’s 97-95 win over the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 1.
Rondo credited Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry with his recent success because he has provided what the point guard has been in search of for so long: freedom.
“Coach let me run the show a little bit,” Rondo said after the win against Portland. “I was trying to stay on the same page with him, we had a lot of communication in the fourth quarter as far as what he wanted to run, and we got the job done together.”
“Playoff Rondo” has been in full effect for New Orleans over the past few weeks, and it has mostly been because Gentry has been willing to throw the keys to the floor general and let him steer the offense.
It has allowed Rondo to prove he’s still capable of being a difference-maker on a winning team, and his drive has convinced his teammates that New Orleans is capable of doing some damage in the postseason.
“He has a different mindset,” said Pelicans forward Anthony Davis. “Even when they were calling out plays (Saturday), he was telling us what it was in our version before they were able to run it. He’s definitely mentally locked in, and the way he played (Saturday) — 17 assists, getting guys involved, talking, making sure we huddle up after free throws, making sure we know what we’re doing after timeouts. He’s just in a different mode, and he’s playing well.”
Some coaches have tried to force Rondo to conform in the past and play in a more structured system. But that’s just not who he is.
He has always had a great mind for the game, and his unquenchable thirst for knowledge and forceful personality can come across as someone that’s attempting to overpower his coaches.
However, the New Orleans coaching staff raves about his passion and how it affects the rest of team. He’s known for constantly watching film throughout the day, and it’s no surprise to his teammates if they get a call from him in the middle of the night with some type of observation.
Gentry said that he has coached point guards in the past that are capable of running a team, but none of them understand the nuances of the game as well as Rondo.
“I’ve been lucky enough to have the type of guys you can do that with,” Gentry said. “I think with Rondo he’s even more special than those guys because he works at it so hard. … I think if you’re going to have him on your team, you’ve got to believe in him enough to understand that he’s going to put guys in the right situation.”
In Saturday’s win, the Pelicans blew a 19-point lead and were on the verge of giving away the game after an inspiring performance on the road to open the postseason.
Most coaches would’ve tried to rein in their team and guide them to the finish line, but Gentry trusted his point guard and allowed him to call the shots with the game on the line.
“That’s when you have to believe in what he’s doing and what’s going on,” Gentry said. “Sometimes he’ll say, ‘What do you think? Give me something we can run.’ And that’s fine. … My philosophy has always been, and I’ve said this to him, if I call a play and he’s already got one called, then his play will always supersede mine.
“Sometimes when you’re out on the floor, you even have a better feel than the coach.”
That unique perspective Rondo provides has transformed the Pelicans into a dangerous contender in the West, and another win in Portland on Tuesday would send shock waves across the NBA.
But if New Orleans is going to pull it off, it will need “Playoff Rondo” to make his presence felt once again.
Will Guillory can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.258.5344. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/WillGuillory. You can subscribe to our Pelicans Youtube channel here.