Fluid Rondo found the flow
LOS ANGELES — His fingerprints were all over perhaps the Celtics’ best half of basketball since the 2008 NBA title. In 24 second-half minutes yesterday at Staples Center, Rajon Rondo displayed truly how much he controls the offense.
Rondo’s output in each half of the Celtics’ 109-96 victory over the two-time defending champion Lakers looked like those before-and-after weight-loss advertisements.
In the first half, Rondo collected one assist. That’s almost impossible considering how easily Rondo can flip the ball to an open teammate when his mind is fully invested. And that has been a concern the past few weeks.
Rondo hasn’t been himself since returning from a seven-game absence with a sprained right ankle. The offense has sputtered in the early going. Rondo hasn’t taken command as coach Doc Rivers has repeatedly stressed, and at times Rondo has looked uninterested or bored.
And he looked that way at times yesterday, making silly mistakes, taking some inexplicably poor shots, and refusing to attempt layups. In other stretches, he ran the offense with daring and not precision, taking far too many chances and wasting scoring opportunities against a team that possesses the most explosive scorer of this generation.
The Rondo who orchestrated a masterful second half and enabled the Celtics to pull away in the fourth quarter is the one Rivers adores and trusts. The Rondo who recorded 11 assists and 13 turnovers in his previous two games is the Rondo Rivers has to closely watch.
The one who appears to play mind games with himself, sometimes creating on-court quandaries; making the spectacular play and not the simple one, like a shortstop with too much trust in his cannon arm. Rondo has too much trust in his instincts and ability to thread passes into minuscule creases.
Rondo is the NBA’s best at making the pinpoint pass at the precise moment, but he relies too much on that skill. In the second half yesterday, Rondo made matters simpler for himself and his teammates. Very rarely does Rondo play an entire half, but yesterday he played all 24 minutes and the Celtics shot a mind-boggling 69.4 percent from the floor.
And of the 22 baskets converted by Celtics other than Rondo, 15 were assisted by Rondo, including six of the team’s seven 3-pointers. That means he is moving the ball, delivering passes to sweet spots. That means the Celtics are an offensive machine and Rondo is the commander.
“I told Rondo in front of the team it was one of his best games of the year,’’ Rivers said. “In the fact that I thought he called an absolutely perfect game. He’s our pitcher. I thought he just called a sensational game, coming out of timeouts, making sure guys were in their spots.’’
Rondo must now prove that he can consistently run the offense with less freelancing and fewer streaks of arrogance. The Celtics are a championship-caliber team with Rondo in his current state. They outscored Los Angeles, 59-42, in the second half because he was exceptional. The Celtics amassed 21 assists in the final two quarters, the Lakers three.
“It was tempo,’’ Rondo said when asked about his second-half success. “We got stops. It’s hard to run and create tempo when you’re taking the ball out of bounds every time. The assists came in the second half. I wasn’t necessarily trying to get the ball [around more]. I was just doing the same thing.
“I tried to will us to victory tonight. I tried to have more of an impact on the game in the second half. I wasn’t satisfied with what I did in the first half and I just wanted to do the intangibles and try to do everything.’’
Rondo’s most proficient assists are the ones you don’t notice. During the second half, the Celtics didn’t wow the sellout crowd with acrobatic plays or no-look passes by Rondo, they quieted the crowd with made baskets, which is the best type of satisfaction.
Rondo raced the ball up court, found Ray Allen or Paul Pierce in stride, and they drained open shots before the defense could set. The Celtics are not a running team, but when Rondo gathers crisp outlet passes and navigates the floor, he is brilliant at finding an open teammate.
“When we play together, we’re a tough team to beat,’’ Pierce said. “If you get out on the break or when he drives the ball, cut with your hands ready because [Rondo’s] going to find you. He’s becoming a better player in that aspect because he’s a better passer because a year ago he’d find me and sometimes he wouldn’t find me, but it seems like this year he’s finding me every single time I get open and it’s joy playing with him.’’
Rondo reached double figures in assists in 17 of his first 20 games. After returning from his extended absence, he had double digits in assists eight times in 15 games, a sign the offense was sputtering and relying too much on one-on-one play. Yesterday marked Rondo’s highest assist total since Jan. 5, when he had 23 against the Spurs.
The second half was an emphatic sign that Rondo is back, but the next challenge is to maintain that level and limit the mental challenge he seems to enjoy at this stage of his career.
“You don’t have to overthink the offense, just get up the floor,’’ Allen said when asked what he does when Rondo is dealing. “And just slightly move, get to the corners. Just watch the game. He gets in there and knows where everybody is. So it’s easy.’’
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.