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Commentary: Did Rajon Rondo’s brother talk trash to Rockets? Maybe he knew something

The Rockets' Russell Westbrook is held back by a referee as he argues during the second half Saturday.
The Rockets’ Russell Westbrook is held back by a referee as he argues during the second half of Houston’s 119-96 loss to the Lakers in Game 5 on Saturday night.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

William Rondo, who is the brother of Lakers guard Rajon Rondo and is in the NBA bubble coordinating barbershop services, caught Russell Westbrook’s attention.

As the two jawed, the man with the clippers offered a pretty solid clapper — he simply waved goodbye.

What was he waving to? It’s too early to tell, but the Houston Rockets’ unorthodox approach could be on that list.

The Rockets’ offseason is full of as many big decisions as any in the NBA, as the organization wrestles with personnel, coaching and philosophical questions that need answers.

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Will Mike D’Antoni, the coach who leaned into Houston’s unorthodox style and put the offense almost entirely in James Harden’s hands, be back? He’s officially a coaching free agent now that the Rockets’ season has ended.

Can the Westbrook-Harden pairing yield the results you’d expect from a pair of former NBA most valuable players?

Related to all of it, and maybe more interestingly, can Houston’s novel approach to basketball, running a truly center-less operation, be a sustainable method of winning?

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In the aftermath of getting plowed through by the Lakers, Harden and Westbrook both seemed to think so.

Harden said the plan “worked for the most part.” Westbrook said he “definitely” thought it was sustainable “if you have the right group of guys.”

Sources within the Rockets believed more in the system, they said, than the actual group of guys. A lack of defensive-minded players and poor perimeter shooting from Westbrook were two of the reasons one Rockets player gave why the Lakers looked so dominant.

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That player still marveled at how hard the Lakers competed throughout the series, bringing the action to Houston, which was unable to stop it.

When the Rockets subbed in little-used forward Bruno Caboclo during garbage time Saturday night, he became the tallest Rocket to play in the series. He’s 6 feet 9.

“You just never know,” Lakers 6-foot-10 forward Anthony Davis said of Houston’s approach after the series. “We haven’t seen it yet, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t work.”

But when asked whether the Rockets’ plans bothered him, he said it didn’t.

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“I guard faster guys,” Davis said. “I guard smaller guys.”

Look, the Lakers cut through a version of the Rockets’ small-ball approach that was less than full strength. Westbrook said his injured quad wasn’t 100%, and who knows what the effects of the coronavirus were on his body. When he rose up for a one-handed dunk in the first half Saturday, it was the most boost he’d shown all series.

And Danuel House’s absence from the series — a choice to invite a guest into his room, costing his team a valuable player and compromising the safety of the entire operation — clearly bothered Harden and the rest of the Rockets.

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Regardless, the version of the Rockets that was on the court the last two games of the series certainly didn’t intimidate the Lakers.

The trash talk from the Lakers’ bench was relentless, spoken with the kind of venom and confidence that can never come with genuine respect.

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Highlights from the Lakers’ 119-96 victory over the Rockets in Game 5 of their playoff series on Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020, in Orlando, Fla.

It’s hard to know whether that’s because the Lakers didn’t think Houston presented a problem because of its size or because they thought the Rockets could be shaken. A little of both seems like a safe enough bet.

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Still, Houston has to come out of this season wondering whether its experiment is worth using another one of Harden’s prime years on.

Westbrook spaces the court like a post-up center, so adding someone with that skill set seems redundant. And big men who move and defend like smaller players, big men such as Davis, are the hardest to acquire.

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Moving Westbrook should be considered, though with three years and $132 million left on his contract, finding takers (or value) will not be easy. And shuffling Harden, who could be headed into a new system, into a new on-court relationship would carry risk.

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So the Rockets leave the bubble like so many other teams, with in-house uncertainties to pair with the overflowing glass of “what’s next?” that awaits them back in the real world.

So, maybe William Rondo was just talking trash. Or, maybe Rajon Rondo’s big brother knew he was seeing the end of something bigger.


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