As stakes rise, so does Rondo

Despite a 3-1 record against Miami during the regular season, it never really felt like the Boston Celtics had the Heat’s number. In each of the first three games (all Celtic wins) the margin of victory decreased, before Miami cruised to a 23-point win in the final meeting of the regular season on April 10th. Interestingly enough, the Celtics diminishing success coincided with a decrease in the team’s assist totals as well as the assist totals of Rajon Rondo.

When considering that the point guard accounted for 57% of the Celtics assists in these games – well above his season average of 39.6% – we can see that Boston’s ball movement tends to go as Rondo goes. Just consider the first two meetings of the season when Rondo was in the midst of a historic stretch to open the season. He handed out 33 assists as the Celtics won both contests by a total of 13 points. Furthermore, history seems to indicate that the fourth-year point guard is the key when it comes to beating teams like the Miami Heat, who match up so well defensively with the likes of Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. While these players create matchup problems against most teams, the athleticism of Lebron James and Dwyane Wade leaves Miami well-equipped to cover Boston’s wings, leaving more of the onus on Rondo.

The 2010 playoffs are a perfect case study in this theory, as the Celtics faced the Heat and Cavaliers in back-to-back series and the increased reliance on Rondo was evident. During the 2010 regular season, Rondo’s usage rate was just 15%, somewhat low for someone considered an elite point guard, but descriptive of his distributive role in the Celtics offense. In these two series his usage jumped to 20%, and beyond that, the manner in which he used possessions changed as well. While the pick and roll remained his primary offensive set, Rondo saw a greater number of his touches in spot-up and isolation situations as the Heat and Cavs rotated more resources to defending the Boston’s Big Three.

Furthermore, Rondo’s propensity for shooting rather than distributing out of these sets increased as well; he took nearly three more shots per game in the Cleveland and Miami series than he averaged in the regular season.

Even with a greater tendency towards shooting, Rondo also augmented his role as a facilitator, accounting for 49% of the Celtics assists in these 11 games, after producing 41% of the Celtic’s assists during the regular season. Despite his reputation as an offensive liability, a jump in usage did not lead to a decrease in Rondo’s offensive efficiency, allowing Boston to withstand game-plans designed to limit Allen or Pierce. In fact, Rondo specifically improved his offensive production in transition and isolation sets during the 2010 postseason as teams were forced worry about him more as a distributor rather than a scorer, leading to more favorable scoring scenarios.

A similar trend has surfaced again this year, as Rondo busted out of a late season funk to lead the Celtics’ opening round sweep of the New York Knicks. After posting a usage rate of just 12% during the regular season (5th on the team), Rondo was the most utilized Boston player during the four-game series at 21%. As was the case last season, he accounted for more assists than he did during the regular season (50%) and was more prone to shoot in isolation and pick and roll scenarios. Following suit with last season’s playoffs, Rondo has seen significant jumps in his scoring efficiency in transition (.867 to 1.115 points per possession) and out of isolation sets (.853 to 1.0 points per possession) as New York focused on limiting Pierce and Allen.

While Rondo is hardly a prolific scorer, he has shown a knack for taking on a greater offensive load in the playoffs when more traditional options for the Celtics are neutralized.

This leads us back to Boston’s Conference Semi Final matchup with Miami. As I mentioned above, in each successive bout with Heat, Boston’s and Rondo’s assist totals diminished, culminating with a 5-assist effort by the point guard and only half of the Celtics field goals resulting from an assist. This trend suggests that the Heat progressively figured out how to slow Boston’s offense, specifically Rondo’s means of facilitating it. With that said, his worst performance against Miami came in the midst of his slump following the trade of Kendrick Perkins, a slump he appears to have burst out of. This begs the question: should the Heat be concerned about the apparent reemergence of Rondo, or should they feel confident that they’ve figured out how to contain the Celtics’ offense?

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