For essentially the duration of Anthony Davis’s career, the Pelicans have been knocked for being a one-man team with precious little depth, no wing players, and little dynamism to their offense that doesn’t start and finish with Davis. The addition of DeMarcus Cousins helped allay the severity of this problem, but since he’s also a 7-foot center, Boogie’s place in the team was not without its overlaps. Someone holding this perception of the Pelicans would be surprised, then, to see how they’ve handled the Blazers while building a 2-0 series lead. During last night’s 111-102 win in Game 2, the Pels didn’t even need much from Davis during a pivotal fourth quarter (where he didn’t score). Jrue Holiday balled out, but the Pelicans wouldn’t have won a critical Game 2 on the road were it not for Rajon Rondo.
Rondo fell just one assist shy of a triple-double last night, winding up with 16 points, 10 boards, and nine assists. What was most impressive about Rondo in Game 2 was the way he controlled the flow of the game, and ran the Pelicans offense with ease. He’s the sort of player who doesn’t need to score much to make his presence felt, and for a team that’s struggled to move the ball for years, his skills make him a perfect fit. Rondo moving onto the ball frees up Holiday to move to the wing, where he’s been devastating, and his vision and nifty passing in the lane makes Davis’s job that much easier as well. Alvin Gentry has wisely given Rondo the freedom to pull strings, and he’s been rewarded with a seamless, unflappable offense that has a great chance of pulling off the series upset.
All of which is a huge surprise! The past few years of Rajon Rondo’s career have been utterly forgettable, from his unceremonious benching in Dallas, to his mercenary year spent losing games in Sacramento, to his year in Chicago where he made everyone mad and called out his team’s leaders. It didn’t help that the NBA’s meta-game had reoriented around shooting a million threes, something Rondo never did or enjoyed. It seemed like Rondo could easily fade away, neither good enough to earn a starting spot in the new NBA nor nice enough for a good team to really trust him.
As it turns out, New Orleans was the perfect place to go. DeMarcus Cousins supposedly lobbied the team to take a chance on his old friend, and the arrangement has been mutually beneficial. The Pelicans led the league in pace this season, taking advantage of Rondo’s passing skills in transition and Davis’s otherworldly finishing around the rim. Holiday spent only one percent of his time on the court running the point, a big shift that helped him to the best scoring season of his career. Gentry’s a players’ coach who allowed Rondo to be himself, and the Pelicans’ chemistry has flourished with Rondo on the team, which nobody probably saw coming.
For an illustration of Rondo’s rediscovered confidence, take the game-sealing dagger from last night.
New Orleans is now two wins away from a second-round date with the Warriors, who would probably much rather be playing the Blazers. Portland’s still got the shooting (theoretically) to advance here, but Jusuf Nurkic hasn’t looked comfortable, and their star guards haven’t shot well. That’s a sharp contrast with the intensity and focus of the Pelicans, which, weirdly enough, is thanks in large part to Rondo. It’s great to see him back to something resembling his old form.