Here’s why Rajon Rondo made the right decision by passing up a late layup in Lakers’ loss to Spurs

With the Lakers trailing by three vs. the Spurs and just over 12 seconds remaining on Saturday, LeBron James found Rajon Rondo for what was going to be a sure layup to cut the lead to one. Instead, Rondo did this:

Rondo has subsequently, and quite predictably, been roasted for passing up this shot — another example of rogue Rondo, who is currently also the subject of a spirited debate as to whether he should remain the Lakers’ starting point guard over Lonzo Ball. For my money, Lonzo should be starting for good, and I think that will be the case very soon, if it isn’t already. But that’s another topic for another day. Right now, we’re talking about Rondo’s decision to pass up an easy two in search of a tying 3-pointer. 

Admittedly, the decision looked bad. 

But the logic behind it, for two different reasons, made perfect sense

First, let’s talk about shot quality. When I was at the Finals last season, Andre Iguodala talked to me about how much the quality of shots improve when the ball touches the paint, either via a pass or a penetrating ball-handler. Along with offensive rebounds, this is one of the best opportunities to create a good look from three — to get the ball into the paint, let the defense collapse, and kick it out to an open shooter. 

Teams don’t do this enough when they’re down three at the end of games. Instead, they tend to pass the ball around the perimeter or simply dribble the clock down without ever moving the action inside the arc to create at least some defensive movement, and the potential confusion that could end up leaving a shooter momentarily unaccounted for. So Rondo took a chance that he was going to surprise the Spurs the same way he surprised everyone else who was watching, and if you go back and look at that play, it almost worked. 

Check out this screen shot of the moment Rondo touched the ball in the paint, and pay particular attention to Josh Hart’s defender, DeMar DeRozan, who is doing exactly what typically happens when you get the ball in the paint — he’s looking directly at the ball, rather than keeping track of Hart (No. 3), who you can see is floating free behind the line. 

The direct passing lane is obstructed, but If Hart had been on the same page as Rondo and immediately relocated just a step or two to his left in the instant that DeRozan’s head was turned, Rondo was ready to hit him with a pass for what would’ve been a wide-open three. These are split-second actions. Rondo took a chance that a defender was going to lose track of his man for just that split second, and he was right. Hart just didn’t relocate, and Rondo fumbled the ball, and that’s all it takes for a smartly conceived play to look dumb as the Lakers had to scramble from there. 

The bottom line here is the Lakers were likely going to have to make a 3-pointer at some point to tie this game. The Spurs had five good free throw shooters on the floor in DeMar DeRozan (81 percent), Bryn Forbes (80 percent), Patty Mills (71 percent), Rudy Gay (71 percent) and Dante Cunningham, who is 4 for 4 on the year, though just a 65-percent shooter for his career. Sure, it’s not entirely unreasonable, if you take the quick two, that one of those guys would miss a free throw on the other end, but it’s not likely — mostly because it’s a good bet that one of the Spurs’ better shooters would’ve gotten the inbound pass and wound up at the line. 

It’s like black jack — just as you have to assume the dealer has a 10 underneath, you have to assume that good free-throw shooting teams are going to make free throws. Relying on anything else is a low-odds gamble any way you slice it. Statistically speaking, had Rondo taken that layup, in all likelihood the Spurs would’ve made their free throws and the Lakers still would’ve wound up down by three, only now with even less time on the clock. 

Which, incidentally, brings me to the second reason I believe Rondo made the right call.

We’ve long debated whether a team should foul when up three late in a game — but this isn’t the debate we should be having. The debate we should be having is whether a team should be allowed to foul when up three late in a game. The answer is no, they should not. You are supposed to be punished for fouling. Not rewarded. And intentionally sending a team to the line for two free throws when they need three points to tie is rewarding the defense. 

Think about this in the context of other sports. Imagine if in a football game, if a team was within one possession of tying a game (six points), if the defense was allowed to restrict that team’s chances of even attempting a tying play by committing a penalty. You can’t just jump off sides and force the other team to take a field goal. The only thing that happens if you jump offsides, or commit any kind of penalty, is the offense moves closer to the end zone, thus increasing their chances of tying the game, not decreasing

Think about baseball. If a team is down one run, they’re going to get a chance to tie the game. There is no way around it. If a team walks the hitter at the plate, the next hitter comes up. There is no way to strip them of the opportunity to tie the game by doing something that you are supposed to be punished for. 

But in basketball, it’s backward. When you’re up three, you can just foul and thus take away the other team’s opportunity to tie the game on that play. It’s ridiculous, but within the rules, it’s smart. And a lot of teams do it. The general rule is that when the clock gets below 10 seconds, that’s when you have to start worrying about the defense fouling and taking your tying opportunity away from you. When Rondo caught the ball, there were 12 seconds left. 

I’ve talked to players about this, and in these late-game, down-three situations, the urgency to get off a shot before the defense fouls is real. Players feel it. And it’s warranted, because you can go from having a chance to tie the game to having that chance taken from you and instead having to enter into all kinds of missing-on-purpose-and-hope-for-an-offensive-rebound nonsense. Taking your shot when you have it, particularly when the defense isn’t expecting it, makes sense. 

The X-factor in this particular situation is that the Spurs do not tend to be a team that fouls in these situations. Gregg Popovich believes in playing the possession out and forcing a miss rather than fouling, which is commendable if not statistically smart. 

Perhaps you can fault Rondo for not factoring the Spurs’ situational tendencies into his decision, if he was even aware of them, but again, these are split-second decisions. The best playmakers are not the ones who make the play the defense is expecting. Rondo’s best asset as a basketball player has long been seeing the court differently than everyone else, making plays on anticipation that are outside the box and a step ahead. He did that here. He saw a chance to catch the defense off guard and went for it. It didn’t work out because Hart didn’t relocate and because Rondo fumbled the ball. The execution was flawed. That doesn’t mean the decision wasn’t sound.

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