Postgame: Rajon Rondo

Mavs PG Rajon Rondo weighs in on his first game with the team, the crowd's reception, disrupting the Spurs' zone defense, playing alongside Monta and more.

The first half of Rajon Rondo’s Mavericks debut didn’t go the way we’d hoped.

Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs sat in a 2-3 zone for virtually the entire game on Saturday night, and in the first two quarters the Mavs seemed flummoxed. Aside from Dallas, very, very few NBA teams regularly play a zone defense. But the knock on Rondo and his impact on the Mavs offense is that because he’s not a great three-point shooter, it would be easy for defenses to keep him out of the paint. After all, if you put five defenders in the lane, there’s not exactly tons of space.

At its best, a 2-3 zone can not only seal off the rim, but it can often lead offenses to over-pass and settle for three-pointers, whether they’re open or contested. Dallas attempted 16 three-pointers in the first half, hitting just five. The Spurs’ strategy was working, and the Dallas offense was not.

“I think we were too stagnant,” Rondo told reporters after the 99-93 win. “We shot too many jump shots in the first half. They slowed us down, and that’s what they wanted.”

During the break, Rick Carlisle decided to use Rondo in the middle of the zone — behind the guards and in front of the forwards — to generate offense from the inside out. It’s something you really never see before, and I’m not sure the Mavericks have ever run an offense like it. But, boy, did it work: Dallas took just 10 three-pointers in the second half, making four, shot 47.7 percent from the field, and scored 28 points in the paint.

Before we get into how Rondo was effective in the middle of the floor, here’s an example of a more traditional means of attacking a 2-3 zone.

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The sequence above (sometimes referred to as an “overload” play) begins as most plays do, with one or both bigs at either elbow, occupying the guards. Meanwhile, in this instance, Al-Farouq Aminu sits on the wing at the free throw line extended, pulling out with him Boris Diaw, the man responsible for the right baseline. As he moves out to defend Aminu, Devin Harris comes across the floor and slides underneath Diaw and into the corner, where he’d ideally get a corner three-pointer or a good angle for a drive. Harris did eventually get to the basket for a layup in this play, but one problem with overload offenses is that the set can take more than half the shot clock just to set up, meaning if a good look isn’t there right away, odds are the offense isn’t going to come away with a good shot.

However, it’s one of the only traditional sets to run against a zone where a ball-handler can initiate offense from below the three-point line. Typically, a point guard will sit at the top of the arc and teams will try to force the ball into the middle of the zone with frantic cross-court passing to create driving or interior passing angles. It works against less-disciplined teams, but the Spurs are collectively smart enough to stop most of those plays.

In response to the Mavs struggling to initiate offense near the basket, Carlisle slotted Rondo more toward the basket, just behind where Corey Joseph and Marco Belinelli are in the photo above.

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By moving Rondo into the elbow area as opposed to Tyson Chandler, the Mavericks have killed two birds with one stone in an attempt to thwart the zone defense. First, Rondo is a better passer than just about anyone in the NBA, so putting him in a position from which he can distribute automatically puts Dallas at an advantage. The Mavs are essentially running a variation on a “hi-lo” offense, where one player hangs out around the free throw line while another, usually a center, sits at the rim. Doing so either stretches the defensive center out from the rim and further out toward the charity stripe or compresses the guards at the top of the defense, and therefore opening passing lanes to the wings.

The difference, though, in what the Mavericks are doing is typically a hi-lo offense is run between two big men. The Lakers, for example, ran a ton of it during their recent glory years with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. Teams rarely, if ever at all, put a point guard in that spot. But Rondo is absolutely lethal from that area, as he’s just 15 feet from the basket and is able to see every square inch of the floor. By giving him the ball in that spot, the Mavericks are immediately starting their offense beneath the three-point line, which is the very thing 2-3 zones are designed to stop.

The Spurs are in a tough spot here, too, because no one can move over to guard Rondo. Joseph is checking Ellis and Belinelli is worried about the spotted-up Chandler Parsons. Diaw is stuck guarding Richard Jefferson in the corner, and if Aron Baynes steps up to guard Rondo, he’s eliminated from the play should Ellis drive past Joseph, which is something that happened a ton in the fourth quarter (and wasn’t a fluke). So, what happens is this:

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Rondo catches the Ellis pass and is immediately swarmed by two Spurs defenders. Meanwhile, Parsons is aaaaall alone, and as a terrific cutter, he immediately knows what to do. He makes the catch and lays it in at the rim.

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The Mavericks became even craftier with this set with Dirk Nowitzki on the floor. In the above example, the Mavericks actually got the ball to Rondo by working through Harris, standing in the corner. Joseph can’t commit to Rondo because he still needs to keep an eye on Parsons. Meanwhile, both Austin Daye and Matt Bonner got sucked into guarding Harris in that corner. Diaw, on the opposite side, can’t slide over to help on Chandler because he’s guarding a guy with 27,000 career points. That leaves just Jeff Ayres at the rim, playing 1-on-2 against Rondo and Chandler. That’s a mismatch. Rondo anticipates all of that movement as the play is developing and delivers a nice bounce pass to Chandler, who stuffs it home. It’s textbook offense, but it’s something we’ve never really seen before.

Finally, the Mavs were able to use the Spurs’ aggressive double-teaming strategy against Dirk down the stretch to their advantage. As the double-team arrived, Rondo would swoop into the middle of the floor. In the example below, he finds a wide-open Ellis in the corner for three and the tie.

If teams are going to double Dirk even when playing a 2-3, that leaves the rest of his teammates playing 4-on-3 against an unbalanced defensive unit. In the above example, the Mavs had two shooters spotted up, a finisher at the rim, and the league-leader in assists in the middle of it all moving with the ball 15 feet from the rim. That’s pretty impossible to stop.

Court spacing was considered the team’s biggest weakness after the Rondo trade. Obviously this is just one game, so sample size remains small. On top of that, the Mavericks played against a Spurs team missing its entire starting lineup. However, San Antonio’s reserves are more disciplined and sound than most teams’ starting fives, which is really saying something. The Spurs can execute strategies to a tee, and this one was designed to force the Mavs into taking the very shots that they aren’t supposed to be able to make.

But because Rondo is such a dynamic playmaker, and because Carlisle is genius enough to figure out unorthodox ways to get him in position to make plays for others, Dallas played its way to a win in spite of its alleged weakness. The blueprint is now in place: Even if teams are going to force the Mavs to take jumpers, Dallas will find a way to the lane anyway, and Rondo will have a lot to do with it.

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