Rondo forcing defenses to change ways

March, 23, 2014
Mar 23
11:17
PM ET
If there's a tiny silver lining to the year of basketball that Boston Celtics guard Rajon Rondo lost due to ACL surgery, it's this: It has forced teams to completely alter the way they defend him.

With a focus on shooting during his lengthy rehab, Rondo has added a more consistent perimeter jumper to his arsenal, one that has forced teams to rethink their strategy against him in the pick-and-roll.

[+] EnlargeRajon Rondo
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesRajon Rondo's year off seems to have helped him hone his shooting.
Before, defending Rondo on the pick-and-roll was simple: Go under and take away Rondo's ability to drive and create, where he was clearly most dangerous. Teams sagged off Rondo and challenged him to shoot jumpers and he wasn't consistent enough to make it hurt.

Now, even as he shakes the remaining rust two-plus months into his comeback, Rondo's confidence in his shot has him downright daring teams to go under in the pick-and-roll.

“It’s kind of like, pick your poison,” Rondo told the Boston Globe. “But for the most part, for my entire career, I wouldn’t say it’s impossible, but teams have to continue to probably go under [the screens] because, if you go over, there’s no way you can probably defend me."

Rondo's comments to the Globe made us wonder just how pronounced his improvement in the pick-and-roll has been and how it has forced teams to adjust.

With help from Synergy Sports data, we examined pick-and-roll data from the past three seasons and what you find is that Rondo's shooting has teams completely altering their strategy by forcing his defenders to try to fight over screens and hope that a right knee that's not 100 percent healthy yet is the only thing that can deter him from creating points.

Let's start with a look at the data:



Look at that swing in going under vs. over. During the 2011-12 season, only 24.1 percent of defenders went over pick-and-rolls on Rondo. A whopping 41.5 percent went under (and the other 34.4 percent got swallowed up by quality pick-setting; something that has diminished this season without the likes of Kevin Garnett to crunch opposing guards).

Points per play is Synergy's metric that standardizes output on a per-play basis. A play is any sequence that ends with a shot, foul or turnover.

Two seasons ago, Rondo ranked in the bottom third of the league when defenders went under. He shot just 36.4 percent in those situations, had virtually no 3-point shot to keep defenders honest and teams were hellbent on preventing him from driving.

Last season, before his injury, Rondo was so dominant against defenders fighting over the pick-and-roll that even as his mid-range jumper improved, teams still challenged him to shoot. He made improvements, but not enough to discourage changing their philosophy considering he was absolutely elite in generating points when opposing guards went over (1.228 ppp, 98th percentile).

This year, Rondo doesn't have the same explosion coming off pick-and-rolls while waiting for that right knee to get back to full strength. That's been reason enough for teams to fight over picks. But it's Rondo's shooting that has really caused the change.

Rondo is averaging 1.116 points per play against opposing defenders that go under the pick. Think about what a leap that is from 2011-12 (0.795 ppp). Rondo is shooting a ridiculous 48.8 percent this season in those situations, even as his 3-point shot has gone cold in recent games.

Now consider the possibilities when Rondo's knee is back at full strength and he can better restore his numbers against those that go over. Consider when the Celtics have a legitimate center who can set picks (the number of players swallowed by picks is down 14.4 percent from last season) and further create space by forcing big defenders to roll to the basket.

As Rondo said, "pick your poison." Coach Brad Stevens echoed that sentiment last week in Brooklyn.

"I don’t think it’s a lack of respect, but sometimes you pick your poison, just like we do, with a really good player," Stevens said. "I think you are seeing that more and more, that they’re going over because he is also good at getting them lower when they go under, and our guys, our bigs, are doing a really good job -- twice as good of a job as we were earlier in the season -- of setting the right angles on their screens."

As the Celtics play out the string this season, keep an eye on Rondo in the pick-and-roll. Watch as teams throw different looks at him hoping to slow him one way or another.

If Rondo continues to get healthy and if he continues to build confidence in his shot, teams might truly have to pick their poison.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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TEAM LEADERS

POINTS
Jeff Green
PTS AST STL MIN
18.4 2.0 1.2 35.2
OTHER LEADERS
ReboundsJ. Sullinger 8.4
AssistsR. Rondo 10.7
StealsR. Rondo 1.7
BlocksJ. Sullinger 0.9