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Lakers practice: Trash talk, fun and ruthless competition: LeBron vs. Rondo

A 3-point shooting contest shows why the former rivals might make great teammates

LOS ANGELES — Off to the right, Lonzo Ball, still recovering from left knee surgery, shoots free throws. Josh Hart is getting shots up on a court close to a busy doorway. It’s the far left court that’s popping, though — thanks to an impromptu shooting contest between teams headlined by Rajon Rondo and LeBron James.

Competitive shooting drills are commonplace, so Tuesday’s end-of-practice jostle isn’t exactly groundbreaking. But it’s the Los Angeles Lakers, in particular these Lakers, who make it interesting. On Rondo’s team: him, JaVale McGee, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Michael Beasley. They’re squared up against James, Kyle Kuzma, Lance Stephenson and Brandon Ingram.

Both squads start at the top of the key. It’s essentially a team version of the popular shooting game Around The World. But this practice game would require a parental advisory sticker if it were ever sold in stores.

“Yeah, I could tell from yesterday,” head coach Luke Walton said of the intensity and tone-setting energy James brings to the squad. The same, though, can be said for Rondo, whose trash talk and mannerisms immediately call to mind his Boston Celtics teammate and close friend Kevin Garnett. Walton’s goal for the first day of practice was defense, so the Lakers didn’t touch a basketball until the last 10 minutes of practice. Once the basketballs touched the court, it was as if meat were dropping into shark-infested waters. And James and Rondo were great whites.

As their respective teams move away from the top of the key, the jawing between James and Rondo heats up. First, there are discrepancies with regard to the score — a situation as universal in basketball culture as what is and isn’t a foul. Then comes the trash talk — and it comes in tidal waves.

“Shut,” Rondo yells, “the f— up!”

He doesn’t yell this at anyone in particular — just yells because his team’s 3s are falling through the hoop, one after the other. The irony in all of this is that Rondo isn’t exactly a 3-point shooter. He’s hit 290 in his 12-year career. For context, Golden State Warrior Stephen Curry has hit 2,129 in nine years. But that doesn’t stop one of the great yet underrated trash-talkers in the league from egging on James, even as he gases up his own squad.

Rondo: “Gimme that, JaVale!!”

Rondo: “Wet!”

“C’mon, man!” This as Rondo rushes assistant coach Brian Shaw to get him the ball.

James isn’t exactly quiet himself. Shirtless, in his “Hollywood Walk of Fame” LeBron 15s, he’s yapping as well.

“Hold that!”

“Run it! Let’s go, Kuz!” James points and yells at Rondo. Rondo returns with a bark. 3, drops. 3. Another 3. James and Rondo are about to be a meannnnn combo.

Both have otherworldly court vision and a bloodthirstiness that, at least at this practice, has an organization invigorated.

Rondo and James have gone to war countless times over the years. And for a split second during the drill, memories of those classic Cavaliers/Heat vs. Celtics playoff heavyweight battles are in the air. It was Rondo’s Celtics that sent James’ Cleveland Cavaliers home for the summer twice — and ultimately, in 2010, out of Cleveland altogether.

It was James’ Miami Heat that sent Rondo’s Celtics home twice — once in a series where Rondo’s elbow was dislocated in a play with Dwyane Wade (Rondo played through it). And it was James’ Heat that ultimately broke up the Celtics’ band of brothers up for good in the 2012 Eastern Conference finals.

They’re an odd couple — but one with an astronomical basketball IQ. Both have otherworldly court vision and a bloodthirstiness that, at least at this practice, has an organization invigorated.

“There’s not many of us in this league that can actually think and prepare with our minds before we even step on the floor,” James said of Rondo at the Lakers’ media day, “and actually play the game like the two of us.”

Not everything the squads were saying to each other was audible. But the mannerisms spoke volumes. There’s a vibe surrounding the team that was absent last year. The aforementioned Shaw sports a grin that lights up the entire gym as he grabs rebounds and shoots passes to players. No one, including the coaches and Lakers staff who watch the contest in enjoyment, thinks this is going to be easy. Reviving a historically great franchise from several years of ineptitude is a tall order. But there’s an aura of possibility in a shooting drill, and that’s saying something.

Kyle Kuzma walks around with a bop and always shoots after James. Coincidence? Sure, but it’s also a nonverbal gesture demonstrating Kuzma’s willingness to learn from the greats. Caldwell-Pope calls out scores. James and Rondo are on-court scholars. It didn’t look like they were purposely placed on opposite teams, but it’s not like either was complaining about lining up against the other. “It makes it more competitive for the practice … for guys to see us go at it,” Rondo said to The Undefeated after practice. “If we were both on the same team, it’s hard for us to teach.”

And Rondo barks right back. James and Rondo are about to be a meannnnn combo.

As for the exact final score, Rondo says he doesn’t recall. That doesn’t matter as much as the bragging rights. His team did walk away with the W, though.

“We beat the sh …,” Rondo said as his voice purposely trailed off after the contest. “We won. It was competitive, but we were just having fun. Getting those competitive juices going at the end since we didn’t get to scrimmage. Today, a couple of guys [on my squad] shot it a little bit better than a couple of guys on their team.”

There’s a lesson in it all, though. About team bonding moments that come in all sorts of iterations. About patience, something that will be required this season, and something both Rondo and James say they’re not great with. “A couple of weeks back, I went to church and the focus was patience,” said Rondo. “I’m working on it. It’s something I’m always continuing to work on.”

Justin Tinsley is a culture and sports writer for The Undefeated. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single-most impactful statement of his generation.