RondoWorld and the limitlessness of what we don’t know

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Lost in the nonsense about officiating in a game in which a team that has averaged 97.1 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs scored 118 yet the calls were what was out of place in Game2, there’s Rajon Rondo.

Rondo is, and always has been, a complete mystery, to everyone. It’s taken years for Doc Rivers to unwrap the riddle that is motivating Rondo, years for teammates to understand how he operates. The media? Clueless. They admit it, they accept it, and the most common refrain from guys that cover the team day in and day out is “that’s Rondo, that’s just what he does.” He’ll seem polite one moment and searing the next, he’ll blow off questions, he’ll do charity events, he’s all over the place, and you’re never going to get to understand him because he has decided not to let anyone outside of his inner circle. And that’s completely his right. It’s honestly a little refreshing in the age of stars worried about their brand.

But his game brings questions, too. How can he seem so dominant the next, then so disengaged the next? Is he really the assist machine the stats say he is or is it a product of the Hall-of-Famers around him?How many of his assists are simply routine passes that result in scores as a result of a simple, but brutally effective system utilizing veterans who know how to replicate their success at an 80 percent effectiveness rate?

Is Rajon Rondo the best point guard in the league? Is Rajon Rondo the worst great point guard in the league?

Wednesday night answered none of these questions. But it did provide a glimpse at a world beyond the Big 3, beyond the grind-it-out fight club this Celtics team has to make every game in order to hang. It showed a Rondo that sports fans can dream about, untethered from having to find shots for players that can’t get up and down the floor, no longer having to defer to other players. A Rondo who is free to do what he wants. And a Rondo that can hit a jumper.

Rondo will always look back fondly on this run with the Big 3. What he learned from Kevin Garnett, about how to shut out the media and siphon his energy into his play. What Pierce taught him about leadership and taking charge of a game. What Ray Allen taught him about work ethic and execution. But there’s also a future ahead of Rondo. His career is just getting started.

Some believe that Rondo will crumple once this safety net is gone. Once Kevin Garnett is reflecting in California and Doc Rivers is enjoying life in his home in Florida. When Rondo is on his own, surrounded by players that can’t dominate, that can’t punish. There’s an idea that he’ll turn back into a pumpkin, that he’ll be just another temperamental guard who once was great when surrounded by greatness.

To that I ask, “Are you nuts?”

Rondo’s game Wednesday night is not the perfect game to measure him by. To be honest, he hit the jumpshot better than he may ever hit it again. (Note: Rondo has improved considerably in the past two years at the mid-range jumpshot. He’s just not that good.) But his control of the game is. He knew when to jet past the defender and slip to the rim. He knew when to freeze on the drive, post, pump-fake, and kick out. He knew how to find easy buckets, how to find open looks, how to get past what is honestly one of the best defenses in the league. That is not some “product of the system” crew he got past with speed. It’s a smart, tough, hyper-athletic, hulking monster crew of defenders that attack relentlessly.

And Rondo shredded them.

44 points on 24 shots, 10 of 12 from the line, eight rebounds, ten assists, three steals, three turnovers.

31.7% Usage rate. .751 TS%, 41.7% Assist rate.

Mastery of basketball. Total and complete mastery.

Boston lost, despite this performance, and that’s a whole other conversation (or screaming rant if you choose to break it down to one missed foul on Dwyane Wade). But the fact it was in a loss almost makes it more epic. It shows you what was needed from him. That there was no way Rondo could have done less and Boston could have survived. He showed what could be for his future, what a future in Rondoworld looks like. It’s like some sort of mixture of “Cool World” and a post-apocalyptic arena like “Mad Max” or the video from “California Love.” It’s a world where Rondo’s singular hatred of everything in his way is translated into accuracy and brutality, where a cerebral player that can’t control his emotions uses that energy to outwork, out-execute, and out-perform whatever is in his way.

It makes you wonder what it would be like if he had athletes around him, if he could run, if he wasn’t trying to drag the game into the mud so his teammates could get a stranglehold on the opponent. And this way? It’s going to win more often. We’ve seen that. That’s proven.

But the future of Rondoworld? It’s still enough for you to marvel at. The future is now, and it’s amazing.

Thunder star Russell Westbrook scores 45, leads 25-point comeback against Jazz

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The Thunder lost three straight games, fell behind by 25 in the second half at home and looked as if they had no interest in returning to Utah.

Then, Russell Westbrook reminded everyone why he’s a superstar.

Westbrook is a singular force who can take over a game and rally his teammates – not a liability who makes everyone around him worse. His confidence and determination in the face of calamity were invaluable tonight. He kept attacking, and as shots started to fall, he and his teammates massively increased their defensive intensity.

The result: A 107-99 Game 5 win over the Jazz that looked highly improbable 21 game minutes before it ended. But Westbrook (who finished with 45 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists) singlehandedly outscored Utah in that final stretch.

The Thunder are hardly out of the woods yet. They still trail 3-2 in the series with Game 6 Friday in Utah. Teams with home-court advantage in a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6 win it just 37% of the time. Those teams win the series just 26% of the time.

But thanks to Westbrook, Paul George (34 points) and plain all-around defensive effort, Oklahoma City still has a shot. At minimum, the Thunder won’t send George into unrestricted free agency with four straight losses.

Not that Oklahoma City erased all concerns.

Rudy Gobert devoured the Thunder’s offense in the paint – at least while he could avoid the foul trouble. Utah was +7 in Gobert’s 30 minutes and -8 in the 18 minutes he sat.

The Thunder made most of their comeback with Carmelo Anthony on the bench. They continued to play well once he returned in the fourth quarter, but by then, the Jazz had lost all rhythm.

Utah – led by Jae Crowder‘s 27 points – looks deeper. Anthony was still Oklahoma City’s third-leading scorer with just seven points.

And the Thunder haven’t won in Salt Lake City this series.

But they’ll make another trip there. Considering where this game and series looked midway through the third quarter tonight, that’s a heck of an accomplishment.

Another massive third quarter lifts Rockets past Timberwolves into second round

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We saw this movie just a couple of nights before, but Rockets fans love the ending and would gladly pay to see it 12 more times this postseason.

Much like Game 4, the Rockets were down at the half in Game 5 Wednesday after having played disinterested defense and with cold shooting from their stars (James Harden and Chris Paul combined to go 3-of-16 from the floor). Minnesota was up 59-55 and had hope.

Then the third quarter the Rockets flipped the switch. Again.

Harden had 15 points in the third — matching the Timberwolves as a team. Minnesota started to double Harden and take the ball out of his hands (especially late in the shot clock), but he often moved the rock and it led to open threes — the Rockets were 6-of-10 from three in the quarter. Houston won the third 30-15, not as overwhelming as the 50-point quarter the game before but once again enough to comfortably pull away from Minnesota and cruise in for a 122-104 win.

With that, the Rockets win the series 4-1 and now await the winner of the Utah vs. Oklahoma City series.

In that series, the Rockets will need to play with more consistent focus than they brought against the Timberwolves — they can’t just play a couple of good halves in the next series and expect that to be enough. Unlike Minnesota, those teams in the next round will make Houston pay a steep price for a lack of focus.

Houston got a massive night from Clint Capela, who led the Rockets with 26 points and 15 rebounds, running the rim hard in transition and making plays inside while the rest of the Rockets launched threes over the top.

Harden finished with 24 points and 12 assists, and Eric Gordon had 19 off the bench in the win.

Minnesota had 23 points from Karl-Anthony Towns and 17 from an energized Jeff Teague.

For the Timberwolves, a team with elite young talent, this was a glimpse of what it will take to reach the heights they envision. This was a good step — the franchise’s first trip to the playoffs since 2004 is not to be diminished. It matters. But there are higher levels this team can attain. Defensively they have to be better, offensively they need to feed Towns more and play to their strengths better. It’s a work in progress.

Houston just showed them where they want to be.

Hawks, coach Mike Budenholzer agree to part ways

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This was expected.

It was pretty obvious Mike Budenholzer didn’t want to stick around and lose a lot of games with the Atlanta Hawks as they rebuild the next few years, especially after he had been stripped of his GM powers. Budenholzer went well down the road with the Phoenix Suns about their open coaching position before thinking better of it. Since then he has set up a meeting with the Knicks about their coaching vacancy, a job he reportedly wants badly.

At this point there was no need for the Hawks and Budenholzer to continue their sham marriage, so they have agreed to amicably separate, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and since confirmed by the Hawks.

Budenholzer said this to Wojnarowski of ESPN:

“I am grateful for the five years that I spent as coach of the Atlanta Hawks, and will always cherish the incredible contributions, commitment and accomplishments of the players that I was fortunate enough to work with here,” Budenholzer told ESPN on Wednesday night. “From ownership to management, support staff to the community, I’ll look back with great pride on what we were able to achieve together with the Hawks.”

For Budenholzer, the long-time Spurs assistant and a strong Xs and Os coach, look for him to both push for the Knicks job and be in the running if/when the Milwaukee Bucks job opens up whenever their season ends. In both cases he’s a fit — those are teams that need a culture and system reset, and Budenholzer proved he can bring that to Atlanta (that was a good team before they let Al Horford and Paul Millsap walk for nothing).

With Atlanta, they likely will turn to a top assistant coach who will get a chance to develop young players on that team (and not cost Atlanta as much as an established coach). Stephen Silas of the Hornets is a rumored name, but there are others.

LeBron James overrules controversial finish with game-winning 3-pointer (video)

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LeBron James‘ turnover with the game tied late looked like a bad call. LeBron’s block of Victor Oladipo on the ensuing possession looked like a goaltend.

Did the Cavaliers get robbed of a crucial possession? Did the Pacers get robbed of two go-ahead points?

LeBron nullified those questions with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give Cleveland a 98-95 win and a 3-2 series lead. The game-winner capped a great game by LeBron (44 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists) and moves the Cavs to the verge of advancing.

When a team with home-court advantage can close out a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6, it has 52% of the time. It has won the series 92% of the time.

The odds are even better with LeBron. LeBron has won 11 straight closeout games, nine of them on the road. He’ll have another opportunity Friday with Game 6 in Indiana.