LOS ANGELES — Rajon Rondo has had a difficult time for the Lakers. He was suspended after brawling with the Houston Rockets in the second game of the season. He proceeded to mangle his right hand not just once, but twice, requiring surgery both times while missing a total of 31 games. And in recent weeks, he has been coming off the bench for Coach Luke Walton, even as Lonzo Ball, who had been starting at point guard, continues to recover from an ankle injury.
Rondo, a 13-year pro, was supposed to be an invaluable presence for the Lakers, who had otherwise surrounded LeBron James in Year 1 of the West Coast LeBron era with a cast of unproven (if promising) players and a hodgepodge of reclamation projects. Nobody thought this team would vie for a championship, but the road has been rougher than expected.
In the wake of a recent two-game road trip to New Orleans and Memphis that resulted in two deflating losses and the very real sense that the Lakers could miss the playoffs, Walton approached Rondo for a quiet conversation. Walton wanted to put him back in the starting lineup for Wednesday’s game against the Pelicans, and Rondo was on board with the plan.
After all, what did the Lakers have to lose? Aside from losing another game that they desperately needed to win?
“We sat there and talked,” Walton said. “He’s been fine with his role. He wants to play more — everyone wants to play more. But he hasn’t been complaining or anything like that. But our conversation was one of: ‘Let’s talk about what we need to do. How do we get back on track?’ It was an honest conversation. It was healthy and positive.”
As far as confidence-building exercises go, the Lakers’ subsequent 125-119 victory over the Pelicans was not necessarily Grade A material. The Pelicans have their own issues, and their star center Anthony Davis, who had hoped to be playing for the Lakers after this month’s trade deadline, was on a strict minutes limit as the Pelicans eye a summer sweepstakes for his services. (They would like to keep his limbs intact in the meantime.)
But Walton’s favorite verb after the game was “need,” as in the Lakers needed the win and needed some positive vibes.
Sure enough, Rondo helped a great deal, finishing with 16 assists, 11 points and 7 rebounds in 37 minutes.
“I’m very confident in what Rondo has done in this league,” Walton said. “He’s struggled a little bit, but some of that’s on me. His minutes have been down. We’ve been trying to find different groups to work. But he’s proven over his career that when he gets an opportunity, he shows up to play.”
Rondo was not particularly adept from the perimeter, shooting 5 of 15 from the field, and Davis feasted on the Lakers’ smaller lineup when he was on the court. Walton knows those could be more pressing issues against better teams. But for one night, the Lakers (30-31) allowed themselves to savor some hard-earned momentum — because it might not last.
The Lakers, who have been hindered this season by injuries and trade-deadline intrigue, are not a great basketball team. The question is whether they are merely mediocre, with a chance of still making the playoffs, or not very good at all, in which case they will have wasted their first year with James on the roster.
It hardly helps that the Lakers have one of the league’s most difficult schedules the rest of the way, starting Friday when they host the Milwaukee Bucks, who improved to 47-14 on Wednesday with a win against the Sacramento Kings. The Lakers’ coming schedule also includes meetings with playoff-bound teams like the Denver Nuggets and the Toronto Raptors.
“Every day is going to be its own challenge,” James said, adding: “Just try to stay positive throughout whatever’s going on.”
Rondo had experienced his own set of challenges ahead of Wednesday’s game. He was coming off a pair of dreadful performances during the team’s recent two-game trip, averaging 4.5 points and 2 assists off the bench while shooting 36.4 percent from the field. He was a nonfactor, or perhaps even a net negative.
“I didn’t have the rhythm on both ends of the floor,” Rondo said. “That’s why we have 82 games. You have the opportunity to play again and redeem yourself.”
At Wednesday’s shootaround, the center Tyson Chandler kept yelling “energy, energy, energy,” Rondo said. And during the game itself, the players focused on their body language — lots of hugs and high-fives — in addition to actually playing some defense for a change. Walton was also pleased that the Lakers had 37 assists to go with just 8 turnovers.
“It’s a lot of fun when your guys are playing like that,” he said.
Forget that the Pelicans are struggling. Forget that James needed to sink a fadeaway 3-pointer from the corner with 31.3 seconds to seal the win and sidestep disaster. Forget that Julius Randle, a center the Lakers let walk in free agency last summer, torched his old team for 35 points in the loss.
Forget all this until Friday, when Rondo and the rest of the Lakers are sure to face an even stiffer challenge.