You might have noticed that teams don't play six feet off Rajon Rondo as often as they did in the past. It still happens from time to time, but it's not as much of a regular occurrence anymore.
Consider, for example, the contrast in these two screenshots.
Screenshot 1 is from Game 1 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals. It shows Dwyane Wade ducking several feet under a screen. Screenshot 2 is from last year's season opener, the only Celtics-Heat game Rondo played last season. It shows Mario Chalmers fighting over the top of a screen set in the same general area of the one in Screenshot 1. There are a number of other factors that account for Miami's change specifically -- Rondo's big playoff performance, a general philosophical shift in Miami's defensive coverages, the regular season vs. postseason factor -- but the difference is stark.
It's not just Miami, though. Look at these other examples of teams blitzing Rondo on pick and rolls.
Rondo's also subjected to other forms of pick and roll defense, just like any other point guard. But the "six feet under" coverage is definitely happening less frequently. There are two reasons for this, and both have to do with how Rondo has developed his game from his early days in the league.
One is that Rondo's shooting has improved. Prior to his knee injury, he was hitting 47 percent of his 15-19-foot shots and 44.7 percent of his 20-24-foot attempts, per NBA.com. The year before, he was at 40.4 percent from 15-19 feet and 35.4 percent from 20-24 feet. Back in 2009-10, when the Celtics last made the Finals, he was at 35.2 percent from 15-19 feet and 35 percent from 20-24 feet. Rondo's jumper is emerging as a credible threat, which is critical as he gets older and his natural athleticism wanes.
The other reason, though, is that Rondo uses the space to pull off one of basketball's simplest moves: the stop and go. Years of dealing with sagging defense has taught Rondo the importance of changing speeds, and now, few do it better. By playing so far off him, teams invite Rondo to dictate space with the threat of his speed, allowing him to feign a dribble probe, pause, then accelerate with long strides to get past the off-balanced defenders.
Here are a bunch of examples from this season alone.
Not all of those moves are against soft coverage, but the most effective ones are. Why? It has to do with Rondo's footwork, the key to his ability to appear quick. Rondo's hesitation dribble is deadly because of his wide stance when he stops.
The stance serves two purposes. First, it acts as a dribbling jab step, forcing the defense back on their heels. By going so far underneath a ball screen, the defense has allowed Rondo to dictate the terms of engagement. He can now respond to the defense's reaction to his initial attack accordingly, whether it's driving past an off-balanced man or stepping back if they cede the lane. Guarding Rondo closer prevents him from getting into this wide stance in the first place.
The other purpose? Rondo can now take longer strides. If he senses that there's an opening to attack the basket, all he must do is power off that front foot and bring his back foot far in front of him. Changing speeds is fundamentally about covering long distances efficiently to appear quick. If Rondo was forced into a more constrained stance, he would have to start his move from further away, bringing his back foot forward and then lifting his front foot to drive. This way, he's already made one long stride and must only continue the move to make another.
Look how much space he covers with his first step.
And look how much he covers with his second step.
Rondo's covered 8-10 feet of ground with just two steps from a standstill position ... and this is on a play where he attacked at an angle rather than a straight line. By starting with his wide stance, he eliminates a step in his move, allowing him to gallop with two long strides without dribbling. Two long strides covers a lot of ground efficiently, so he appears naturally quick. Really, though, it's all in the footwork.
That's why you can't guard Rondo by playing off him anymore. That gives him the space to perfect that footwork dance for his stop-and-go move.
Granted, there are other issues with Rondo offensively that new coach Brad Stevens must help solve. His focus can wane, and he often passes up easy shots to pad his assist totals. Teams still don't respect his spot-up shooting and double-team using his man when he doesn't have the ball, making it difficult for his four teammates to find space to do their thing. It'll also be interesting to see how he responds to new challenges like a surgically-repaired knee and a supporting cast that doesn't include Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.
But Rondo's footwork shows why you can still be a good pick and roll player without a great jump shot. When he's given space, he uses it beautifully.