Before he settled the score with Chris Paul on the second night of a back-to-back, Rajon Rondo’s best game as a Laker was last March in New Orleans. He played 30 minutes and was brilliantly Rondo. 24 points and 12 assists. 64% and 57% on threes. 3 steals and 2 blocks. The Lakers won by 28. The backdrop of it all was that Anthony Davis wanted to be Rondo’s teammate on the Lakers, while the Pelicans, including owner Gail Benson, were salty. The final score didn’t really matter because both teams were going nowhere.
Ten months later it is an entirely different story. The Lakers arrived in Oklahoma City at two in the morning and were playing a hot team. It wasn’t just that the Thunder had won 9 of their last 11, or they figured out a way to recover from an abysmal early start. But on national television they destroyed the Houston Rockets in a celebratory Russell Westbrook is back game. They looked every bit a playoff spoiler, if not a contender. And although Russell Westbrook was the headliner last Thursday night, Chris Paul was the story. He dominated the game with his orchestration, his scoring, his leadership and his drive. It was one of those peculiar situations where Russell Westbrook was cheered for what he did for the Thunder after Kevin Durant exiled himself, and Chris Paul was applauded for what he is doing now. Paul could have gone rouge and pouted and sulked and tried to force his way out after the trade. Or, he could compete and carry the Thunder with him.
The latter, Chris being Chris, had Rondo and Kyle Kuzma up way past their 2 am hotel room check in. It made sense to get some sleep. Or, it made sense to stay up until 5 am to talk strategy.
On this night, Rondo and Kuzma were a kindred pair. Rondo was playing his enemy. His dislike of Paul spans years and has much to do with Paul the point God, as it has to do with how people revere Paul, and find ways to discredit Rondo, a NBA champion. And there is Kyle Kuzma angst too, the one holdover of the drafted kids. He was supposed to break out this year only to have injury issues and fitting in issues shadow his every move. Last week, his name was floated in trade talks. As in if you want Kyle Kuzma show me your hand.
In that way, both Rondo and Kuzma were situational outcasts heading into a game without LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Rondo knew what it meant. He would be the lead. More shots would come his way.
It was his orchestration. To make it work- meaning to shove the Lakers excellence down Chris Paul’s throat- he needed Kuzma to be what we all know he can be, a dominant scorer. Rondo needed to prop Kuzma up the way he elevated Anthony Davis when Davis was a Pelican. Kuzma had to believe that replacing Anthony Davis was going to be a problem for Oklahoma City and not a night for a young team to coast.
This is how Rondo gets his revenge. He doesn’t have to Jimmy Butler it and call someone trash. He doesn’t have to do an IG driveby. Just dominate the position. Make the person who is guarding him solemn. Forget all that Frank Vogel talk about the Lakers depth. The gameplan was Rondo’s revenge.
He is still salty about the fight last season with Chris Paul otherwise known as Spitgate. Rondo was suspended 3 games, Paul 2. Rondo sees it as favoritism towards Paul, something he has dealt with his entire career and frankly it annoys him to the nth degree. Rondo sees himself as a comparable talent to Paul but with a ring. Paul is ringless and gets the benefit of the doubt. Always.
The game therefore was more than the game. Rondo’s strategy had Kyle Kuzma as his lead scorer, his LeBron. The first quarter was at the halfway mark and Rondo and Kuzma had 14 of the Lakers 17 points (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope had a triple assisted by Rondo). Rondo’s energy was off the charts and it carried those Lakers who rarely play, Troy Daniels and Jared Dudley and the like, into efficient performances.
Without the front court talents of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Lakers with Rondo pushing them became a 3-point shooting team. They took 32 threes and made 15 of them. At one point, they had a 32 point lead. On the second night of a back-to-back.
Chris Paul was hardly a factor. Just 16 points, shooting 20% from three. The Lakers swept the Thunder in the season series. It was exactly how Rondo scripted it in that 3 hour Kuzma coaching session. The best revenge is massive success. (Frank Sinatra).