You could see it in LeBron James’ eyes Tuesday night. The Lakers star seemed toenter that zone, the area where only the game’s greatest players are allowed toenter.
In the first half of Game 3 against the Rockets, James scored 29 points on 10-of-14 shooting, including 4-of-5 from 3-point range.It was a tour de force from the leading scorer in NBA playoff history.
NBA PLAYOFFS: Updated TV schedule, scores for Round 2
And yet, despitethat Jamesdominated offensively and Anthony Davis contributed 14 first half points of his own, the Lakers found themselves facing a three-point deficit heading into the locker room. By the end of the third quarter, which featured four electric blocks by James, the score was tied, buta victory was far from certain.
Insert Rajon Rondo, the veteran point guard who has been at the center of both celebrations and consternation throughout his career. Rondo either scored or assisted on Los Angeles’ first eight field goals in the fourth quarter, and he scored or assisted on 23 of the Lakers’ 30points in the period.
While the production from James (36 points, seven rebounds, five assists, four blocks) and Davis (26 points, 15 rebounds, six assists) waseye-popping, it was Rondo’s timely outburstthat finally allowed theLakersto create some separation and ultimatelysecure a 112-102 win and 2-1 series lead.
Rondo missed all of the “seeding games” and the entirety of the Lakers’ first-round matchupwith the Trail Blazers after suffering a thumb injury. He struggled jumping back into the rotation for Game 1, but he has been a criticalpart of the past two wins.
Rajon Rondo last 2 games:
10 PTS | 9 AST | 5 STL | W
21 PTS (11 in 4Q) | 9 AST | W
“I think he was just extremely aggressive, not only offensively, but defensively taking the challenge onJames [Harden], taking the challenge on whoever he was guarding. Just trying to lead,” James said after Game 2 (via ESPN’s Dave McMenamin). “I mean, that’s what [Rondo]is. He’s a leader. And for us to have him back in the postseason, it’s a key for our team.”
TheLakersare rightfully considered one of the top contenders to leave the NBA “bubble” with the Larry O’Brien trophy. Having James and Davis on the roster is enough to grant them that status. But there is a big question hanging over the team: Who will be the third guy to step up and let James and Davis take a breath every so often?
Perhaps Rondo can be that guy. There’s a reason he hasearned the nickname”Playoff Rondo,”after all.
Beyond the positivenumbers, Rondo is a calming presenceand one of the few teammates James has ever trusted to handle the ball when he’s also on the floor. Rondohas won a championship and played in more than 100 postseason games. He won’t get nervous in key moments, and he won’t shy away from taking a tough defensive assignmentor directing the offense as the clock winds down.
“He’s a floor general. He’s going to put us in our right spots,” Lakers forward Markieff Morris said.”He’s going to talk to us. He’s been there before. He’s done it at all different levels and we’re happy to have him back to lead the team.”
Can the Lakers rely on Rondo consistently as a third option, though? Being an X-factor goes both ways. If Rondo reverts back to Game 1 form, the pressure on James and Davis will be immense. It’s possible they are great enough to carry the load, but as the Eastern Conference side of the playoff bracket has shown, possessing depth and multiple weapons can make a huge difference.
And James understands that. In his postgame interview with TNT’s Jared Greenberg, James reflected on how he came to be the all-time leader in NBA playoff wins.
“It says that I’ve played with a lot of great teams. It says that I’ve played with a lot of great teammates and some great coaches, either in Cleveland, in Miami, and now here in Los Angeles,” James said. “You don’t get those wins without your teammates and the coaching staff that prepares and does all the preparation that’s behind the scenes. …
“It doesn’t happen without the supporting cast. It’s why I’m able to sit here with this achievement.”
Rondo may just be the most important member of this supporting cast. As long as he continuesplaying at this level, James should keep adding to that win total.