The last play of the Kings' 91-88 win over the Hawks on Thursday was interesting for basketball nerds. Atlanta needed a three to tie the game and set up in an alignment with four players in a diagonal line on the opposite side of the inbounder. In response, Rajon Rondo directed his teammates into a unique defensive alignment, causing lots of confusion on both sides.
Whatever Rondo did worked, because the Hawks couldn't get a game-tying shot attempt off in time and the Kings sealed an important victory for their playoff hopes.
That's the short version. Here's my best attempt to tell the long version.
With just 1.9 seconds left, the Hawks only had time to catch, dribble once (if that) and shoot. The Kings therefore decided to put one of their biggest players on the inbounder in the hopes of deflecting the pass, or at least cut off the inbounder's line of sight.
A sensible strategy for sure. The problem: which big man?
Somehow, DeMarcus Cousins and Willie-Cauley Stein both believed it was their job to block Dennis Schroder's vision. That last screenshot reveals the Kings' bewilderment. You have Cauley-Stein appealing to the bench; Cousins pointing to the man he's expecting to guard; and Rondo and Omri Casspi trying to direct Cousins to his actual assignment.
This would have been a perfect opportunity for the Hawks to inbound quickly and take advantage of the Kings' chaos. Unfortunately, coach Mike Budenholzer already noticed the Kings sending their big men to Schroder and made a substitution to get the taller Thabo Sefolosha into the game.
That delay gave the Kings time to get it together. They instead did something else...
RONDO GUESSES THE HAWKS' PLAY
On a hunch, Rondo made a bold decision. The Kings' point guard's memory is legendary, and he often uses it to anticipate opponents' plays. In this case, he didn't point Cousins to his man, as one would expect. He instead pointed Cousins to the sideline corner, as far away from the action as possible.
Why would Rondo do that? I can't poke inside his head, but I suspect this was his logic.
For one, the Hawks needed a three-pointer and a three-pointer only. Rondo deducted that Cousins wouldn't do any good standing near the basket and would struggle to fight through any screen on the perimeter. So, why not have him play zone at the three-point line?
The other reason is that Rondo noticed something about the Hawks' setup. Those who study the Hawks under Budenholzer closely should recognize this play alignment. The Hawks often use similar versions of it in late-game sideline-out-of-bounds situations. Here are three examples:
Those aren't exactly the same play. The spacing is a little different, the inbound is coming from different sides of the court and the actual outcomes differ. But Korver as the last man in line is a tell for one specific element of each set.
Remember where Rondo instructed Cousins to stand? The strongside corner. And sure enough...
... Paul Millsap obliged.
There's another method to Rondo's madness. After pointing Cousins to the corner, he orders Casspi to guard Korver tightly. At first, Casspi doesn't understand why Rondo wouldn't just do that job himself.
But eventually, Casspi realized the plan. He wasn't actually going to guard Korver for the duration of the play. His only job was to creep up to Korver and then pass him off to Darren Collison as the play developed.
Coming close to Korver actually served another purpose. Rondo also appeared to anticipate that the Hawks planned to run Kent Bazemore off an Al Horford screen once Korver cleared the area. Placing Casspi that high into Korver allowed him to get on top of Bazemore and make him veer far away from the three-point line to use Horford's pick.
The end result is that the Kings shut down the Hawks' first three options on the play, all thanks to Rondo's direction.
BUT THE KINGS NEARLY SCREWED UP ANYWAY
Alas, this almost failed because of a Collison brain fart. Ultimately, Bazemore was able to use the screen and break free of Casspi, but he had to run 40 feet from the hoop to do so. Sefolosha, in a last-ditch attempt to salvage something from the play, looked toward Bazemore in an attempt to catch Collison leaning that way. Somehow, it worked.
Korver is now open for a split second.
But the Kings' initial plan to put size on the inbound passer saved them. Cauley-Stein deflected Sefolosha's pass to Korver ever so slightly, and Rondo was able to swarm Horford before he could get a shot away.
Credit Rondo for anticipating the play, having the boldness to change the Kings' defensive strategy on the fly and causing confusion from a normally-calm Hawks team. His efforts nearly failed anyway, but that wasn't his fault.
For all of Rondo's quirks, plays like this serve as reminders of his amazing basketball intelligence.
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