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Rajon Rondo is back on point with Pelicans

‘I’ve been counted out my whole life, since the day I was drafted’

Do you hear that laughter coming from New Orleans?

Pelicans guard Rajon Rondo has defied his critics to return to a familiar star spotlight after a long departure.

“I still love the game,” the 32-year-old Rondo said. “I don’t get fueled by people counting me out. I’ve been counted out my whole life, since the day I was drafted. I laugh at the critics. You can’t measure a person’s heart or the determination and work I put into this game.”

A much younger Rondo was the starting point guard for the 2008 NBA champion Boston Celtics. The four-time NBA All-Star set the table for the Big Three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. The 6-foot-1, 186-pounder was also a four-time NBA All-Defensive team selection, a three-time NBA assists leader and the league leader in steals in 2010.

Rondo was voted the starting point guard for the Eastern Conference in the 2013 NBA All-Star Game. But shortly afterward on Jan. 27, 2013, he tore his ACL against the Miami Heat and missed the remainder of the season.

“It took me 16 months to get back,” Rondo said.

Allen had departed as a free agent to the Heat in the summer of 2012. On June 28, 2013, the day of the NBA draft, the Celtics traded Pierce and Garnett to the Brooklyn Nets. Rondo returned to the Celtics on Jan. 17, 2014, nearly a year after suffering his torn ACL. He missed the following preseason after undergoing surgery to repair a broken left hand. A few months later, Rondo’s days with the Celtics were over, as he was traded in a five-player deal to the Dallas Mavericks on Dec. 18, 2014.

Rondo thrived under then-Celtics coach Doc Rivers because he was able to call most of the offensive plays. Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, however, preferred to run the offense. Rondo and Carlisle didn’t see eye to eye and quickly butted heads. The Mavericks suspended Rondo for one game for conduct detrimental to the team after a shouting match with Carlisle over playcalling responsibilities.

Rondo was benched after Game 2 of a 2015 first-round playoff series against the Houston Rockets. Rondo and the Mavericks mutually decided to part ways.

“[The negativity] started in Dallas,” Rondo said. “Things didn’t go great in Dallas. I think I rebounded pretty well from that.”

Rondo averaged an NBA-best 11.7 assists per game and started 72 games during the 2015-16 season with All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins and the Sacramento Kings. Rondo also set franchise season records for assists (839) and triple-doubles (five). But Rondo made little noise nationally, as he was playing in a small market for a team that didn’t make the postseason.

“I led the league in assists in Sacramento, but people didn’t see that,” Rondo said. “It’s like it didn’t happen. We had some great players on that team as well, but that’s where I started playing with [Cousins]. We didn’t get to the playoffs like I wanted to. Things folded in the end for us.”

Rajon Rondo of the New Orleans Pelicans in action against the Golden State Warriors during Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals at ORACLE Arena on May 1 in Oakland, California.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Rondo averaged 7.8 points and 6.7 assists per game for the Chicago Bulls during the 2016-17 season as an on-again, off-again starting point guard. He served as a mentor for the young guards. He also earned his teammates’ respect by accepting his ever-changing role.

Rondo led the franchise to a 2-0 first-round playoff series lead over his old Celtics before being sidelined with a broken right thumb. The rebuilding Bulls ended up buying out the final year of his contract for $3 million on June 30, 2017, making him a free agent.

“Chicago was an up-and-down season,” Rondo said. “There was a different direction once the season started as far as going with a different point guard. I got over that fast. Then before the playoffs came, guys came together, sacrificed and understood that the only thing that mattered was the ‘W.’

“We were able to get a couple wins to get us in the playoffs and go 2-0 over the Celtics. I think my play speaks for itself.”

Why does Rondo believe he has gone mostly unnoticed since departing from Boston?

“I’ve been playing in small markets,” Rondo said. “I played with the Bulls and we had a couple of TV games. New Orleans, we played maybe one or two this year. If you aren’t playing on national TV, for the most part, you are not really talked about. The NBA puts the spotlight on who they want to put the spotlight on.”

On July 19, 2017, Rondo signed a one-year, $3.3 million contract with the New Orleans Pelicans to play point guard. Coach Alvin Gentry vowed to allow Rondo to run the offense other than crunch time, when Gentry prefers to call the plays.

After missing the first 12 games of the season because of core muscle surgery, Rondo quickly flourished under Gentry and dished a career-high and franchise-record 25 assists against the Brooklyn Nets on Dec. 27, 2017. He averaged 8.3 points and a team-high 8.2 assists for the Pelicans this season.

Rondo’s presence in the starting lineup also allowed Jrue Holiday to move to shooting guard and improve his scoring average from 14.1 points in 19 games without Rondo to 20.2 with Rondo as the starter. Rondo has also made scoring easy with his passes, alley-oop and otherwise, to All-Stars Cousins and Anthony Davis.

“I got great, great people around me. A lot of people that have helped me take care of my body,” said Rondo, who suffered a cut on his knee during Game 2 of the Pelicans’ first-round playoff series against the Golden State Warriors. “I’m trying to be a professional and get my rest. I got a great chef. There are a lot of people that allow me to be who I am. Coach Gentry gives me the confidence to allow me to be who I am. He told me from day one that he would allow me to run the show, and he never backed down on his word. That plays a part.

“For the most part, I have a great team and great teammates. My teammates enjoy playing with me. They let me be me, they give me the ball and trust me to make the right decision. Obviously, playing with one of the best big men to ever play the game and probably my favorite backcourt [partner] in making plays easy for me in Jrue Holiday on both ends of the floor. When I’m tired, he picks up at point. When I’m not, he makes plays himself. And my supporting cast.”

Unfortunately for Rondo and the Pelicans, Cousins isn’t around this postseason.

Cousins and Rondo built a strong bond during their days with Sacramento and also played well together in New Orleans. But that connection came to a halt when the Pelicans lost Cousins for the season to a torn left Achilles tendon on Jan. 28 against the Houston Rockets. Cousins was averaging 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game.

“I think ‘Cuz’ is doing well,” Rondo said. “He texted me right after [Game 2] with some encouraging words. He told me, ‘Way to fight,’ and he had a couple other things to say. He texts me all the time. He is still a really good friend of mine and one of the very best I’ve ever played with.”

Rondo is the NBA’s playoff leader in assists per game with 12.7. He tied a Pelicans franchise playoff record with 17 assists against the Blazers on April 14. Rondo also tied another playoff record with five steals against Golden State in Game 2 while also earning a double-double of 22 points and 12 assists.

Perhaps Rondo’s highlight in the 121-116 Game 2 loss to the Warriors was getting in a chin-to-chin trash-talking match with Warriors All-Star forward Draymond Green as halftime arrived.

“It’s just two guys playing with passion,” Rondo told the media after the game. “That’s about it.”

Rondo and the Pelicans enter Friday’s Game 3 against the Warriors down 0-2 in the series and in a “must-win” situation in New Orleans. New Orleans is 2-0 at the Smoothie King Center in the postseason and 24-17 in the regular season. The Warriors won both games in New Orleans during the regular season and have beaten the Pelicans in 20 of the last 22 matchups.

Rondo expects the “unbelievable crowd” to give the Pelicans a boost in Game 3.

“To get back into this series, we have to win the first game at home,” Rondo said. “We have to take it one game at a time and one quarter at a time. They’re very explosive. They can score 40 or 50 in a quarter. We can avoid those by taking care of the ball.

“I would still love for us to get to the free throw line. If they are getting to the line, they can get set up on their defense. If we are not getting to the line … I’m going to look at a lot of film and try to figure out how to get A.D. [Davis] to draw fouls. Jrue is a crafty player, he’s smart. Things just haven’t gone our way so far.”

Rondo will again be an unrestricted free agent this offseason after playing for four teams since 2014. The 12-year NBA veteran should garner interest based on his play this season. But after having success with the Pelicans, Rondo definitely sounds open to making a home in The Big Easy.

“I don’t know if that cloud is still over me with what happened in the past,” Rondo said. “I try to let my play speak for itself. My character, my teammates speak up for that. The coach I’m playing with, I think he loves me and appreciates what I do and what I bring to the team.

“I will let it take care of itself. I can’t worry about what I can’t control. What I can control is how I play on the court and my attitude. I just want to continue to have fun. I love what I’m doing.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.