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Rajon Rondo’s bounce-back game shows his importance to Lakers

Rajon Rondo and LeBron James celebrate Sunday night during the Lakers' 117-109 victory over Houston in Game 2.
Rajon Rondo and LeBron James celebrate Sunday night during the Lakers’ 117-109 victory over Houston in Game 2. Rondo was a plus-28 for the game.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

For about 20 minutes after a light practice Monday, Lakers guard Rajon Rondo moved around the three-point line, shooting and trash-talking with a pair of assistant coaches. One joked about all the offensive rebounds he would provide for his teammates off his missed threes.

After a few minutes, general manager Rob Pelinka arrived to offer some resistance. He raised his arms and jumped or simply waved his arms in Rondo’s face. Everybody was loose, smiling and laughing as Rondo shot. After a miss, Rondo shouted, still smiling. Then he took another shot.

“Get up, girl!” he said to the ball, as it bounced off the rim.

On Sunday night, Rondo had a bounce-back game, one that caused his teammates and coaches to gush about his impact. Whereas Rondo was mostly a liability in a Game 1 loss to the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference semifinals, he was instrumental in the Lakers’ win in Game 2. His plus/minus rating was the highest on the team at plus-28. He finished with 10 points, nine assists, five steals and three rebounds.

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“He was just extremely aggressive, not only offensively but defensively — taking the challenge on James [Harden], taking the challenge on whoever he was guarding,” Lakers forward LeBron James said. “Just trying to lead. I mean, that’s what ‘Do is. He’s a leader. And for us to have him back in the postseason, it’s a key for our team.”

When Rondo, 34, returned for Game 1 of the Lakers’ series against the Rockets, it was the first basketball game he had played in almost six months — the COVID-19 hiatus accounted for four of those months, and then he broke his right thumb July 12 just as the Lakers were getting started in the NBA bubble. Rondo left the bubble shortly thereafter to have surgery.

Here are five takeaways from the Lakers’ 117-109 victory over the Rockets in Game 2 of their best-of-seven playoff series on Sunday.

It’s unclear how Rondo suffered the injury, though he did post videos of boxing workouts he did during the hiatus. The mercurial point guard has declined to speak with reporters since March, including after the last two games. Rondo has a history of hand injuries including one earlier this season.

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“He just has to find his rhythm, you know what I mean?” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said after Game 2. “He plays the game — he’s been working extremely hard since he got back into the bubble. Every off day, I’m making sure they’re playing three-on-three, four-on-four. Making sure that he was continuing to build over the last whatever it’s been, week, 10 days, two weeks, since he’s been in here. And all that work paid off tonight.”

The Lakers’ faith in Rondo’s ability to settle their defense and lift their offense doesn’t always come to fruition. Rondo has shown in the past an ability to perform well in the playoffs. He was instrumental in the sixth-seeded New Orleans Pelicans sweeping the third-seeded Portland Trail Blazers in the 2018 playoffs. That’s the Rondo the Lakers believe they’ll see.

“He comes in, he pushes the tempo, he gets guys involved, and that doesn’t always show up in the stat sheet with ‘Do — the intangibles that he does both offensively and defensively,” James said after Game 2. “His nose is always around the ball, and he just makes plays for us and tonight was another example of that.”

McGee and Waiters evaluated

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The Lakers are listing center JaVale McGee as questionable for Game 3 on Tuesday night against Houston after he sprained his left ankle during the third quarter in Game 2. He had a smaller role than normal because of the configuration of the Rockets’ smaller lineup, and his backup, Dwight Howard, did not play at all. Vogel has insisted his centers will have a role in this series.

Guard Dion Waiters is doubtful for Tuesday’s game because of a strained groin. He underwent testing Monday in Orlando.

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