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Stiffs Shootaround: What the Nuggets can learn from Rondo’s impact in New Orleans

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As it turns out, the ability to get the ball to a team’s dynamic big man can go a long way

NBA: Playoffs-Golden State Warriors at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Rajon Rondo and the New Orleans Pelicans put on an absolute clinic on Friday night. There were some who expected the Pelicans to take one at home against a hobbled Stephen Curry and the ever-dangerous Golden State Warriors, but few, if any, could have predicted a such a blow out.

New Orleans defeated Golden State by a final score of 119-100. The Pelicans shot 50 percent from the field overall, over 40 percent from deep, and finished with a 36-22 advantage in assists.

It was a complete performance for the Pels. Their breakout guard, Jrue Holiday, dropped 21 points while turning in a stellar defensive performance on Kevin Durant. Nikola Mirotic, whom the Pelicans broke the ‘in case of emergency’ glass for at the trade deadline, recorded a double-double. And Anthony Davis, well, you know what to expect from him at this point.

The Brow posted a 33-18-3-4 line in a statement victory for a team that’s more than just happy to be here. New Orleans can ball.

Davis has evolved into one of those rare players who makes greatness look easy. But on Friday night, most of the Pelicans’ production—Davis’ included—was the result of Rondo’s surgical performance. The former Celtic great put his basketball IQ on dazzling display as he racked up an absurd 21 assists on the night.

Although, this one probably shouldn’t count.

It’s hard to tell, but Rondo passed the ball to Davis there. It’s not a part of the highlight because it had absolutely nothing to do with that basket. We really need to fix this assist counting thing, but I digress.

Despite the addition of Mirotic and recent offensive explosion from Holiday, the Pelicans still lack the personnel to deter defenses from focusing the lion-share of their attention on Davis. Rondo is an extremely limited shooter and the Pelicans are one of the few teams who are more thin at the wing than your Denver Nuggets. In theory, Davis’ impact can be mitigated with tenacious ball denial and relentless help defense in the paint.

That hasn’t stopped one of the NBA’s best pure passers from finding ways to get the ball to his big man consistently, though. Whether it’s on the roll, a post entry feed or a small opening that’s created through Rondo’s improvisation off the dribble, the Warriors have failed to disallow Rondo from providing his big man with quality looks.

Rondo’s veteran savvy and remarkable intuition when on the court allows him to recognize and manipulate Golden State’s desire to slow down Davis. On Friday, he forced to the defense to reveal their hand with subtle body fakes and canny changes of pace. If they cheated too hard on the help, Rondo found the open shooter.

This is one in area in which the Nuggets struggled mightily this season—getting the ball to their dynamic big man. Denver’s young point guard, Jamal Murray, comes from the score-first school of the front court. The ‘Blue Arrow’ can light it up, but he struggles to make the correct reads and timely passes that are required of a ball handler in the pick and roll.

The Nuggets took significantly less of their threes from the corner this season than the last, and it’s fair to assume that some of that can be chalked up to their struggles with getting the ball to their best passer, Nikola Jokic, when he was rolling to the basket.

For Murray, that weakness is compounded by his inability to feed the ball into the post. He isn’t the only Nugget to struggle in this regard though. In fact, most of the team experienced issues with their post entry this season. It’s holding them back offensively and the coaching staff knows it.

This is tough to swallow, but the proverbial pill’s trip down the esophagus becomes all the more unpleasant when reminded of Denver’s mishandling of Jameer Nelson.

Nelson is no Rondo—this seems like a good time to note that few point guards have ever produced in the playoffs the way Rondo does, and he is among the most adroit passers to ever lace ‘em up—but he’s a serviceable point guard with a traditional skill set. Nelson’s presence in Denver may have played a much larger role in the unearthing of Jokic ball than we initially thought. His absence this past season—after being waived and picked up by New Orleans, poetically enough—was painfully notable.

Rondo reminded us all of what he’s capable of in the playoffs. But he also reminded us of the myriad of ways a point guard can be of value in this league—even if they can’t shoot. The Pelicans signed a veteran guard who knows how to get the ball to their star and it’s paying off. The Nuggets should take note.