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Column: Rajon Rondo sets emotional tone for Lakers in his journey back to NBA title

Lakers guard Rajon Rondo holds the Larry O'Brien trophy in front of his teammates and Lakers owner Jeanie Buss.
Lakers guard Rajon Rondo holds the Larry O’Brien trophy in front of his teammates and Lakers owner Jeanie Buss, lower, right, following the team’s championship win over the Miami Heat in Game 6 of the NBA Finals.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The Lakers’ 17th NBA title was all but clinched, their lead over the Miami Heat having ballooned to 30 points as the third quarter neared an end on Sunday, but Rajon Rondo never considered easing up.

The veteran guard’s concentration remained as strong as it had been when he came off the bench in the first quarter with the Lakers leading by merely two points and not yet sure if they’d be able to hold off the scrappy, persistent Heat. He had helped them build a lead that peaked at 36 points by scoring 19 and playing his usual staunch defense, and he wasn’t about to relax until his mission had been accomplished.

And so he continued to direct traffic, talking to teammates and pointing to the spots he knew they should go to in order to complete their championship task. Wisely, they listened, trusting his knowledge and instincts as they orchestrated a suffocating push that deflated Miami’s hopes and set the stage for a 106-93 victory that ended with hugs and tears of joy and wild swirls of confetti at AdventHealth Arena.

“We knew Miami wasn’t going to quit. We’d seen it before just watching the other series. They came back from being down, 19, 20, in the fourth,” guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said. “We’d seen it happen before and Rondo just recognized that. And Rondo is a great coach and player on the court. He got us in our spots. He made sure we were in the mind-set of just keep attacking, let’s finish the game. Don’t let up. He enforced that tonight and we all just bought into it and we got the dub.”

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The “dub” being the W, the fourth win, one that ensured Miami wouldn’t push them to a seventh game. “We were locked in tonight, especially on the defensive end. We didn’t make too many mistakes tonight. And when we did we quickly corrected it,” Rondo said. “Defensively it was all five guys’ effort. The coaches’ game plan was right on point and we knew if we put it together for 48 minutes we’d be able to come out and have a defensive game like we did tonight.”

Most important was that Rondo set an emotional tone that was amplified by every player on the Lakers. It was only appropriate that the spotlight focused most brightly on superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis after the Lakers wrote an exhilarating ending to a season that was brutally disrupted by the tragedy of Kobe Bryant’s death and thrown into chaos by the COVID-19 pandemic. The impact of James and Davis was immeasurable, not only in subduing opponents but in setting standards for their own teammates.

But a number of secondary players — notably Rondo and Caldwell-Pope, who got the starting job when Avery Bradley opted out of playing in the bubble — filled their roles brilliantly, too, bringing depth and dimensions that Portland, Houston, Denver and Miami could not come close to matching.

-Lakers LeBron James and Rajon Rondo embrace after winning the NBA Championship
Lakers forward LeBron James and guard Rajon Rondo embrace after winning beating the Miami Heat to win the NBA title.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Afterward, as confetti swirled around them and the newness of their triumph began to set in, Rondo and James held each other in a long embrace. Rondo pounded James twice on the chest, maybe in thanks, maybe in recognition of the postseason efforts that earned James the Bill Russell trophy as the most valuable player in the Finals. Rondo’s role shouldn’t be forgotten, though, in helping the Lakers establish the high standards on defense that ultimately separated them from the rest of the NBA.

“Rondo said it in our team meeting [on Saturday],” general manager Rob Pelinka said. “‘If we’re going to win a championship, it has to be with defense, period.’”

Twelve years after he won a title with the Boston Celtics — and 10 years after he lost in the Finals to the Lakers — Rondo was back on top again. He used the word “surreal” more than once to describe his emotions, and that surely fit. His wait between his first and second titles is the longest for an NBA player who played a minimum of one postseason game for a title-winning team; previously, Earl Cureton triumphed with Philadelphia in the 1982-83 season and with Houston in 1993-94.

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“Just I’ve been through a lot in my career,” Rondo said. “Everyone goes through a lot if you play the game this long, 14 years. And I had early success. A lot of great teammates early. A lot of great coaching staffs early. And I thought that’s what the NBA was.

Highlights from the Lakers’ championship-clinching win over the Miami Heat in Game 6 of the NBA Finals.

“And obviously down the road, years 10, 11, things changed for me in my career. Every time I went into training camp you weren’t expected to win the championship because of the teams that I was on, and so that was [a] different mind-set coming into the season. This season, understanding that we did have a team to compete for a championship, to be able to come full circle an entire year later, we reached our goal and our dream.”

The wait surely was worth it. “It’s been a long time for me. Last time I was in this situation obviously the result didn’t turn out as well so being able to come back and redeem myself and play a new part in this championship is definitely a hell of a feeling,” he said. “It’s definitely something I’m going to remember the rest of my life.”

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Having his 9-year-old son Rajon Jr. in the playoff bubble meant a lot to him. He joked that the boy was angry at him after the Lakers failed to close out the Finals in five games. He and his son didn’t sleep well that night. But that was all behind them on Sunday. “His first question was when he’d get a ring,” said Rondo, who had missed the Lakers’ first-round conquest of Portland while recovering from surgery to repair a fractured thumb he had suffered in July. “I’m a proud dad.”

The Lakers defeated the Miami Heat, 106-93, in Game 6 of the NBA Finals in Orlando, Fla., to win the NBA championship.

Caldwell-Pope also had a rocky beginning to the playoffs, shooting 0-for-9 in the Lakers’ playoff opener against Portland in an echo of the rocky start he had to the regular season. He too focused on defense to get going, and his contributions were invaluable.

“My season didn’t start how I wanted to. That summer I put in a lot of work, gave 100% to my summer workouts. For me to start that way, it kind of got me down because I was expecting it to be different,” said Caldwell-Pope, who had 17 points on Sunday. “But I just stayed with myself. I knew what I could do. I knew I could shoot the ball. I knew I could play.

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“It was just all about having a clear mind and clear headspace to go out there and play and not worry about what everybody else is saying about me because I know my job and I know I do my job very well but I knew it was going to turn around because of the work I put in. The only thing I had to do was stay with it. My teammates was behind me 100% and it all turned out great for me.”

It turned out great for them all, support players and superstars, this long and strange journey that lasted more than 12 months. “It feels amazing. Right now words can’t explain it. The emotions really is not running yet,” Caldwell-Pope said. “I’m enjoying my teammates right now. It’s a great feeling to be called world champs. ... An amazing feeling.”

Elliott reported from Los Angeles.

Complete coverage from the Lakers’ championship season

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