Former University of Kentucky star Rajon Rondo helped the New Orleans Pelicans secure their first playoff victory in seven years on Saturday, dishing out 17 assists in a 97-95 defeat of Portland in the first game of their Western Conference series.
While his 17 assists tied the Pelicans’ franchise playoff record, teammates said Rondo’s biggest impact might have been on the defensive end. The Pelicans held the host Trail Blazers to 37.8-percent shooting and just 36 first-half points, in part because of Rondo’s floor leadership.
“Defensively, he was talking to our guys all game,” Nikola Mirotic said. “Every time he knew what (Portland) was running, so he was telling us, ‘Here comes the pindown. Now it’s a flare (screen).’ He was a huge piece. That’s why we won this game.”
Added Mirotic: “This was the playoff-mentality Rondo. ...You see what he’s capable of doing. He’s on a completely different level than the regular season.”
Teammate and fellow Kentucky alum Anthony Davis was a beneficiary of Rondo’s passing-game prowess. The five-time All-Star big man scored 35 points in the win. He said Rondo was “just in a different mode.”
“He’s in a different mindset,” Davis said. “He was up all night watching film. He’s definitely mentally locked in. Even when (Portland) was calling plays out tonight, he was telling us what it was, before they even got a chance to run it. He’s definitely locked in. The way he plays, getting 17 assists, talking, making sure we’re huddling up after free throws, making sure we know what we’re doing out of timeouts.”
Teammates cited Rondo’s calming influence in the fourth quarter as the main reason the Pelicans were able to withstand a late Portland charge that saw them cut a 19-point deficit to one possession.
Pelicans Coach Alvin Gentry said Rondo makes his job much easier.
“If you’re gonna have him on your team you’ve got to believe in him enough to understand he’s gonna put guys in the right situation. Sometimes when you’re out on the floor you even have a better feel than the coach. … If I call a play and he’s already got one called then his play will always supersede mine,” Gentry said.
Game 2 between the Pelicans and Trail Blazers will tip at 10:30 p.m. Tuesday and will be televised on TNT. New Orleans is aiming for it’s first playoff series win since 2008.
“I can tell he’s going to be even better the next game,” Mirotic said. “He’s going to go back to the hotel right now and watch the film at least twice tonight, and then again (Sunday), to see what we can do better. Having Rondo in the playoffs, it’s a blessing.”