A dark-featured man wakes up in a cold sweat. He bounces up into a seated position, breathing heavily, his hair parted down the middle like always, even in the middle of the night.
For him, this year has been the continuation of a dream, an ascent from video coordinator, to assistant coach, to head coach of Michael Beasley and Quentin Richardson, to head coach of two of the game’s most well-recognized stars (and Chris Bosh). Even in such a dream, nothing has gone perfectly. The team some expected to win 72 games won 58, struggling to find an identity, misfiring many times in the clutch, taking longer than predicted to learn how to co-exist, dealing with far more heat than just the Florida sun. Some people wondered whether Pat Riley would fire the young coach and take his job, while others wondered whether Doc Rivers would be interested in taking Miami’s coaching position after the season. Fusing so many stars together was a project for a more experienced man, many observers opined.
But none of that was why Erik Spoelstra (in my own imagination) jolted awake with sweat pouring down his face, like he had just spent two hours jogging in a sauna. In leading Miami to a late-season surge, Spoelstra had quieted most of his detractors, for now at least. Rather, he woke up because a question kept thundering through his head, laughing at him like an evil clown:
“What in the world do we do with Rajon Rondo?”
The road less traveled, pressuring Rajon Rondo takes an athletically gifted player. For example, John Wall (were he better at defense) could theoretically bother Rondo using his elite quickness and long arms. But Spoelstra’s not dealing with thoroughbreds at his point guard position; Mike Bibby, Mario Chalmers and Eddie House aren’t going to win any 100-yard dashes anytime soon. Still, because Spoelstra could potentially sic Dwyane Wade or Lebron James on Rondo, we should at least discuss the merits of pressuring Rondo.
Pressuring Rondo gives him less time to dissect a defense. It gives him fewer passing lanes to utilize. It takes him out of his comfort zone, so that he’s not always the one dictating terms. But the Heat haven’t pressured Rondo at all this season. Whoever has defended Rondo—whether it be Chalmers, Bibby, House, Wade or the now-Celtic Carlos Arroyo, (or even Lebron, who has almost never guarded Rondo with Miami)—has given him cushion to try to A) force a jump shot, B) stay in front of him, and C) keep him away from the paint. The fear of seeing the back of Rondo’s jersey too often while he flits into the paint has kept Miami from pressuring him.
Afford space while defending with a point guard
Mostly, the Heat have guarded Rondo with their point guards. That could change in the playoffs, of course, where Dwyane Wade and/or Lebron James might be called on for longer spells of defending Rondo. But in the regular season, the job fell mostly on Miami’s PGs.
Because none of Miami’s point guards have plus athleticism, sagging off Rondo is essential. Some guards could give Rondo trouble while pressuring him. Mike Bibby’s not one of them. The Heat have gone under almost every ball screen this season, trying to force Rondo into jumpers just like most teams do (I know this mostly because I re-watched every possession Rondo used against the Heat). Actually, most team’s strategies against Rondo are quite similar. Lay off him, use his defender as a free safety of sorts, and pray he shoots jumpers or makes bad decisions.
You can see here how the Heat successfully defend Rondo while not actually defending him. James Jones completely leaves Rondo to help out his teammates. Eventually, the Celtics find the wide open Rondo. But he’s too shy to shoot a simple jump shot, choosing to drive into the trees instead. Because the Heat have two defenders capable of blocking shots, Joel Anthony and Chris Bosh, that leaves Rondo with a tough shot. (Note: I consider James Jones the point guard in this unit because he’s playing alongside Wade and James without a true point guard.)
Even the best strategies to defend Rondo often fail, though. Part of that is his ability to thrive in transition, before defenses even get set.
As Rondo told Jackie MacMullan, “”In transition? Definitely, I don’t think anyone can stay in front of me.” Indeed, the Heat will need to limit Rondo’s transition opportunities. When he’s in the open court, his brilliance with the ball often results in layups for himself or good looks for his teammates. But he doesn’t merely excel on the fast break, although that’s where he makes his finest contributions. No, Rondo has become a complete player, one capable of handling all types of defenses.
He has become so difficult to defend in part because he’s smart enough to counter any defense played against him. To negate the impact of Miami leaving him open, Rondo can become more aggressive with his cuts to the basket. He has seen every defense played against him over the years, and many teams have tried a “sag and pray he shoots jump shots” tactic similar to the one Miami seems to have adopted. So Rondo has adjusted, and when he’s playing his best, can burn defenses who leave him to offer help elsewhere.
Here Rondo sees Mario Chalmers leave him alone, then Rondo sprints straight to the basket, positioning himself behind the defense for an easy two.
Afford space while defending with Wade/Lebron
Interestingly, although Lebron spent some time guarding Rondo last postseason, he spent very little time (read: almost no time) guarding Rondo this season. Likely, that’s due to Miami’s roster makeup. If Lebron defends Rondo, there’s nobody left to guard Paul Pierce.
So when Miami chose to play Rondo with more size, the task almost always went to Dwyane Wade. Contrary to what some observers believe, teams don’t play taller, more athletic defenders on Rondo to stop Rondo. Instead, they play taller, more athletic defenders on Rondo so they can offer more help on his teammates. Kobe Bryant, for example, does a tremendous job leaving Rondo to make life more difficult for Rondo’s teammates. Because of his athleticism and defensive instincts, Wade can play a role in thwarting Boston’s offense similar to the one Kobe plays for LA.
Here’s Wade, completely neglecting Rondo to help on Ray Allen in the corner. Rondo ends the play with a wide open 15-footer, but the Heat will live with that shot. Note how unconcerned Wade seems with defending Rondo.
As we said earlier, Rondo can counter passive defense with off-ball cuts to the hoop. But against Wade, that becomes more difficult. Here, Wade leaves Rondo to help on Ray Allen, again. Rondo reacts by cutting to the hoop but Wade, thanks to being an obscene combination of fast-twitch muscles, recovers to make Rondo’s resulting shot a very difficult one.
While Wade guarding Rondo seemed to cause Boston the most problems, that matchup doesn’t come without its share of negatives for Miami. When Wade guards Rondo, that likely means a smaller player has to defend Ray Allen. Ray doesn’t normally post up, but he can, as he showed while taking advantage of the smaller Toney Douglas at times during the first round.
In addition to the height disadvantage against Allen, many point guards are less experienced at covering shooters around screens. Very rarely do point guards come around screens for catch-and-shoot opportunities, so guarding Ray Allen is an entirely different beast. Combined, the point guard trio of Mike Bibby, Eddie House, and Mario Chalmers has guarded only twelve off-screen three-pointers this entire season. Ray might shoot that many in the first three games of a series, and the point guards might be unprepared to fight through screens and keep Ray from getting off clean shots.
Here’s an example of why cross-guarding Rondo with Wade could free Ray Allen for some good looks. Watch Eddie House painfully attempt to navigate around screens. He never had a chance.
Pick one way to defend Rondo and he’ll adjust to beat you. Pick another and you risk letting Ray Allen get off. Whatever way the Heat decide to play Boston’s electrifying point guard, he’s likely to cause some serious damage. In four games against the Heat this series, Rondo has averaged 12.0 assists, putting together two games of at least 16 assists. He has always shown the ability to raise his game in the playoffs, and the Heat have no natural answer to stop him. Their best chance is to limit Boston’s transition opportunities and hope Rondo gets bogged down by half-court play.
Maybe Spoelstra doesn’t wake up every night with nightmares of Rondo dancing circles around the Heat, like I envision. But he certainly knows how important defending Rondo will prove in round two.