It may have been the possession that rescued the New Orleans Pelicans season.
The Pels, needing a win to stay in fifth place in the Western Conference playoff race with just two remaining games, were 32 seconds away from getting their first victory at defending NBA champion Golden State since 2012.
After a few empty offensive possessions, New Orleans found itself clinging to a 121-119 advantage. Guard Jrue Holiday missed a 3-pointer, and Golden State came downcourt with a chance to tie or take the lead.
Since the Warriors’ Kevin Durant scored 30 of his game-high 41 points in the second half, Golden State wisely put the ball in his hands at the top of the key.
The 6-9, 240-pound Durant thought he had a mismatch when he discovered he was being defended by Pelicans point guard Rajon Rondo, a mere 6-1 and 186 pounds.
It’s why Durant didn’t settle for a jumper. He immediately tried to drive past Rondo.
But as Durant took his first step, the fearless and wily 12-year NBA veteran cleanly poked the ball away with his right hand. Rondo raced downcourt with the steal, passed to Anthony Davis, and Davis passed to E’twaun Moore, who sank a 15-footer for 123-119 edge that the Warriors couldn’t overcome.
Twenty-three seconds later, it was game, set and match for the Pelicans, a 126-120 winner.
“Thank you, Rajon Rondo, for the steal to give us a bit of comfortability,” Holiday said. “He’s one of the top five guards in the league on defense. That’s what he does, defensively he makes big plays.”
Though Durant seemed unstoppable in the final two quarters, New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry had great faith his attack dog would get the job done in the end.
“I love Rondo for the fact that he’s an unbelievable competitor,” Gentry said. “At the end, he wants to guard Durant. He wants to guard all the best players. Some kind of way, he ends up on them.
“He’s been there, and he understands what it takes to win the championship. Our guys lean on him.”
Pels All-NBA forward Davis, who had team-highs of 34 points and 12 rebounds, credits the 32-year old Rondo as being the key figure in the stretch run to grab a playoff berth.
“We’re all hungry and the guy who’s really leading it is Rondo,” Davis said. “He’s telling us how good we are, how good we can be, where we are. He’s coming in every day with a new stat, like if we don’t win tonight and somebody else wins or if we win tonight …
“He’s been through all this before and won a championship (in his second year in the league in 2007-08 with the Boston Celtics).”
Rondo had 12 points and 17 assists, eight in the game’s last 9:33 when he twice assisted on a 7-0 Holiday scoring run that tied the score at 95 and then gave the Pels a 99-97 lead.
“We did a good job of staying calm and collected, staying together, even when they got up by five at 95-90,” Davis said. “Jrue took over that stretch and got us back in the game. We took the lead and took it from there.”
Durant said afterward he understood why the Pelicans have been so effective on offense.
“A.D. (Anthony Davis) is such a great pick-and-roller, and you can’t switch on him because he can score on anybody,” Durant said. “Put that out there with shooters all around him and Rondo who’s a wizard with the ball, it makes them dangerous. They spread teams out.
“I can see why they’ve been playing well and have one of the best offenses over the last month or so.”