Rounding up Rondo

The New York Knicks finally reached the playoffs for the first time since 2004, earning the sixth seed, but won’t have long to celebrate, as they drew the defending Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics. Game 1 is Sunday night at 7. 

The third-seeded Celtics [56-26] literally limp into the playoffs with a myriad of questionable statuses but the one constant for them will be All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo. Sure, Boston has their version of the “Big Three” with future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen, but it’s Rondo who makes the Celts go. Point guard play will be the deciding factor in this series. How effective the Knicks’ backcourt rotation of Chauncey Billups, Toney Douglas, Landry Fields, and Anthony Carter are will go a long way in determining the fate of the Knicks [42-40].  

Knicks head coach Mike D’Antoni, never known for defensive strategies, admitted as much, Thursday. .   

“We’ll play off him some and make him make those open jump shots,” D’Antoni acknowledged. “And until he starts making them, then we’ll adjust.”  

The blueprint to at least slowing down the uber-quick – but suspect-shooting — Rondo is giving him space and almost daring him to shoot the jumper. Should the aging Billups or the not-as-fleet-footed Douglas or Carter decide to press up on Rondo, however, it will be a short series for the orange and blue.   

New York has many options to throw at Rondo and their versatility, although hampered by the Carmelo Anthony trade, can play a factor. They perhaps can start Fields on Rondo and let Billups deal with the ever-moving Allen; or when Billups and Douglas play together, let the savvy Billups play off Rondo and allow Douglas to do the Allen chasing; or, if D’Antoni really wants to be creative, play Billups, Fields, and Douglas together and allow Fields to roam free off of Rondo, while Billups and Douglas single-up on Pierce and Allen, respectively.   

However D’Antoni decides to cover the Celtics, conventional wisdom says that the best success in stopping the Celtics’ offense is to force Rondo into being a shoot-first pint guard. He only attempts 9.9 shots per game.

The Los Angeles Lakers used such a strategy in last June’s Finals, as Kobe Bryant was responsible for playing off Rondo, almost being a ‘free safety’ on the defensive end able to offer double-team help. The strategy worked, as Rondo was hesitant – and unable – to knock down the many open looks that were afforded him. Rondo, who shot 47 percent this season – but under 40 on jumpers — has one of the worst jumpshots in league history. So much so that teammate Shaquille O’Neal may actually knock down more mid-range shots.     

If the Knicks are to have a fighting chance in this series — certainly a possibility considering they have their own “Big Three” with Billups, Anthony, and Amar’e Stoudemire — they’ll need to give Rondo different looks, keep him out of the paint, and make him into something he doesn’t want to be – and can’t be – an outside scoring threat.


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