Rajon Rondo has noticed it more and more since he’s been back.
Opposing teams are altering how they defend the Celtics point guard on the pick and roll, a nod to his improved shooting.
Before, a defender might have gone under the screen, giving Rondo more space to shoot. That was the primary method for most defenses, as Rondo was deemed to be more of a threat driving to the basket than shooting from long distance.
However, after offseason work with assistant coach Ron Adams, Rondo is shooting better than ever from beyond the 3-point arc — a career-high 22 makes in 23 games, topping his previous best of 17 in 81 games in 2009-10.
“It’s kind of like, pick your poison,” Rondo told the Globe recently. “But for the most part, for my entire career, I wouldn’t say it’s impossible, but teams have to continue to probably go under [the screens] because if you go over, there’s no way you can probably defend me.”
Of course, Rondo isn’t exactly lighting it up from long-range lately, 2 for 20 on 3-pointers in his last six games. Yet he’s made enough that defenses have had to at least acknowledge him, whereas before they would prefer to leave him open.
Adams said being an aggressive shooter is still a fundamental difference for Rondo.
“Rondo is first of all a player who has always been a pass-first guy,” Adams said. “And he’s played on very good offensive teams, talented offensive teams. Shooting has kind of been a secondary thing.
“When that happens, when you have other things that you do for a team, many of your shots are not probably taken when they should be. There’s a certain focus to shooting — when you’re open, you have to shoot if the game tells you to shoot. If you’re covered, you don’t shoot; you pass or drive or do something else. I think, for starters, one of the things we talked about was knowing when you’re open and shooting the ball.”
Adams said they’ve also worked on “shooting the ball when teams do go under [screens], not so much at the 3-point line but closer. He has a good feel for that shot.”
Before being hired last summer, coach Brad Stevens did his homework on all his players, including how Rondo shot the ball.
“As far as the shooting goes, I didn’t hear a lot [from people],” Stevens said before Friday’s loss to the Nets in Brooklyn. “I studied the stats. I watched the mechanics. I felt like his mechanics were good enough to be better than the stats, and that was something that was echoed throughout the other people that I’ve talked to, and he’s worked on getting better. I don’t think he’s where he wants to be in any way right now, but I think he can become a very good shooter.”
Stevens also referenced former NBA point guard and current Nets coach Jason Kidd as an example for Rondo, “a guy who probably didn’t start out known as a shooter but finished his career making every open shot.”
And as far as how teams defend Rondo, Stevens said it varies game by game.
“I don’t think it’s a lack of respect, but sometimes you pick your poison, just like we do, with a really good player,” Stevens said. “I think you are seeing that more and more, that they’re going over [screens], because he is also good at getting them lower when they go under, and our guys, our bigs, are doing a really good job — twice as good a job as we were [doing] earlier in the season — of setting the right angles on their screens.”
Earlier this month, Nets forward Paul Pierce said that if his former teammate continues to improve his 3-point shooting, Rondo could be “unstoppable.”
“It’s almost impossible to keep him out of the game, the way he has the floater, the way he finds people in traffic,” Pierce said. “If he continues to consistently knock down that shot, watch out.”Baxter Holmes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BaxterHolmes.