Rajon Rondo’s outlandish point guard-ery this season is even more remarkable considering his obvious offensive flaw; Rondo is five years into his NBA career and yet his jump shot is still weaning. There are other wildly successful NBA players with holes in their games, but in some cases, there are institutional limits to prevent teams from fully exploiting those flaws. Dwight Howard, for example, can only be sent to the free throw line so many times before fouling him intentionally stops making sense. Rondo has no such protection from the rulebook, and he’s left on an island each and every time he rises up for a jumper.
Yet Rondo averages 15.1 assists per game and attempts five field goal attempts at the rim per night, even without the threat of scoring from any kind of distance. His noticeably incomplete game hasn’t stopped him from being one of the league’s most dynamic forces, and oddly enough, one of the Celtics’ most potentially explosive scorers. Rondo showed in last year’s playoffs that he’s capable of detonating on a whim, and if teams give him access to the paint or the baseline, he’s as capable of putting up huge point totals as he is of reaching his typically excellent assist marks.
However, the very presence of those weaknesses makes Rondo a very different cover than other point guards. Opposing defenses may respect the jumpers of Chris Paul, Deron Williams, and Rondo’s other elite PG contemporaries, but the defensive options open up when Rondo’s shaky jumper becomes a prominent part of the opponent’s game plan.
The Dallas Mavericks bested the Boston Celtics 89-87 last week, and as Sebastian Pruiti pointed out at NBA Playbook, the Mavs were quite successful in defending Rondo. He finished with 15 assists in that particular game, but Rondo also shot just 3-of-11 from 10 feet out and committed four turnovers. Dallas focused on keeping Rondo out of the lane first and foremost, and in exchange, gave up a number of long two-point jumpers to the likes of Kevin Garnett and Glen Davis. That’s not an ideal concession, but statistically speaking, it’s the right play. Rondo can do so much for the Celtic offense when he’s given freedom of movement, and by going under some screens and switching on others, the Mavs were able to significantly limit Rondo’s dribble penetration.
That doesn’t completely shut down the Celtics’ offense, but it did make everything a bit more difficult against Dallas. Paul Pierce had to create more in isolation. Kevin Garnett had to work in the post more often against a pretty tough defender in Tyson Chandler. Ray Allen was forced to create off the dribble, when he’s far more comfortable in catch-and-shoot situations. The Celtics are far too good of a team to have their offense “solved,” in any way, but the Mavs did a great job of limiting Rondo’s impact, even if he still ended up with an assist total that would make a career night for many of the league’s point guards.
Pruiti wisely notes that having a big point guard (and thus one that can easily switch on the Celtics’ 1-3 screens without being exploited by Paul Pierce) is quite valuable in implementing the Mavs’ approach, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see more teams try to replicate elements of Dallas’ overall game plan regardless of their PG’s build. Obviously not all of the facets of this defensive strategy will fall in line with other teams’ philosophies, but picking and choosing specific parts of this approach could definitely reap benefits for teams around the league.
Take notes, everyone. No one is stopping Rajon Rondo, but making his life difficult — even if he still ends up with 11 and 15 — can be a relatively straightforward endeavor for those willing to focus on Rondo and live with mid-range jumpers from the Celtics’ bigs.