BOSTON -- It was as if Rajon Rondo never left.
To be precise, the former point guard of the Boston Celtics was playing as if he hadn’t spent his previous two seasons with the Dallas Mavericks and Sacramento Kings, as if the preceding trades of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett had never happened, as if his ACL had never been torn.
There has been a long list of incidents and accidents for Rondo to overcome, and overcome them he has. While amassing his near-triple-double line of 11 points, 14 assists, nine rebounds and five steals in Game 2 on Tuesday, the 31-year-old looked every bit like his younger 2011 postseason self -- except, of course, for his Chicago Bulls uniform.
"He was the key early in the game as far as getting us up the floor,’’ said coach Fred Hoiberg after his Bulls’ 111-97 win gave them a sweep of the two opening games here. "Rajon did a terrific job once we got the ball off the glass to push the ball down the floor and get our guys some good shots, which led to some confidence.’’
Down 0-2 on their way to Chicago, Boston is in danger of becoming the second conference champion in the East to be upset by a No. 8 seed in the seven-game era. The Celtics’ afflictions are definitely old school. They were beaten by what have traditionally been the two most important positions in basketball -- by Rondo, the pass-first point guard who won his matchup against the grieving Isaiah Thomas (20 points on 6-for-15 from the field and a more telling 7-for-13 from the free-throw line), and by Robin Lopez, the 7-foot center who continues to rub their noses in the offensive glass.
Lopez’s 18 points (8-for-11) and eight rebounds had much greater influence than the box score will attest. His five offensive boards had the impact of so many quarterback sacks. He was like a pass-rushing defensive end that the Celtics simply couldn’t block. As Lopez continued to break through for second chances, the Celtics fans began to complain and boo. And then, almost passive-aggressively, Chicago’s center would back away to knock down one midrange set shot after another, which in turn set off reactions that must have been even more satisfying: He could hear his audience mumbling in pent-up frustration.
"Some of the biggest shots of the whole game were Lopez’s jump shots,’’ said Boston coach Brad Stevens. "He hit those three jump shots in the third quarter that stemmed the tide of our run and were huge … Lopez has crushed us.’’
When Boston focused on the boards by starting the third quarter with 7-foot backup center Tyler Zeller, Lopez and the Bulls merely changed the subject by making shots at a compounded rate. Chicago shot 56.8 percent from the field in the second half, and 51.1 percent overall.
So much is going wrong for the Celtics that it’s hard to know where they can begin to turn the series around. It was understandable, during their news conferences after Game 2, that not one question was asked about the lingering influence of the shocking death of Thomas’ 22-year-old sister, Chyna Thomas, on Saturday. The events in the arena have moved on, as they must, even if the Celtics’ hearts have not. Thomas plans to return home to Tacoma to be with his family before rejoining the team in Chicago for Game 3 on Friday -- and his teammates may yet make the trip to Washington to be with him.
These circumstances have been cruel to Thomas and his Celtics in a way that transcends basketball. But if we are to focus on the first two games, to the exclusion of more important events, then it is only fair to acknowledge that the young Celtics have been unable to prepare as they normally would.
They had arrived to the No. 1 seed years ahead of schedule -- before they’ve even cashed in on the potential No. 1 picks of the Brooklyn Nets that are coming in the next two drafts – and their margin for error has always been unusually slim for a top-ranked contender, as revealed by their dismal record against the top teams this season (a combined 8-15 against seeds No. 2-5 in the East and No. 1-4 in the West). And now, instead of amping up for the pursuit of their first postseason series victory since the 2012 era of Garnett, Pierce and Rondo, they’ve been in mourning.
That is one reason why the final outcome of this series isn’t yet assured -- who’s to say the Celtics won’t recover their energy by Friday?
Then again, and just as fairly, what is to say that it will make a difference even if they do?
The priority for the Bulls has been to cut off the driving lanes for Thomas and his teammates, and on Tuesday their hosts were complicit by responding with runs of undisciplined open-court play and bad decisionmaking. "A lot of times in transition I think we’re just trying to get the game back in one play,’’ Stevens said.
"We have some things we have to figure out, and we will."
The Bulls weren’t known for scoring in transition during the regular season, but Rondo was pushing them to run and exploit the poor transition defense that resulted from Boston’s unbalanced offense. A half-dozen Bulls scored 13 points or more, and their production was almost choreographed. Paul Zipser (16 points on eight shots) picked up where fellow role player Bobby Portis left off in Game 1. Nikola Mirotic hit a trio of large 3-pointers. Jimmy Butler, with 22 points and eight assists, was waiting patiently to explode as needed. But he wasn’t needed as Dwyane Wade (9-for-16) heated up in the second half for his 22 points.
Boston will surely need more production from Thomas and Al Horford. "We were a little anxious at times,’’ said Horford, who generated only seven points to go with his 11 rebounds and five assists. "We understood this was an important game for us, and as a group we didn’t handle it as well as we could have. It’s all about learning. We’re learning as a group. We have some things we have to figure out, and we will.’’
In their ongoing role as a team built for the future, the Celtics need to shift the perspective entirely. Based on the sensational play of Rondo and Wade, the Bulls are turning this series into a renewal of the past.
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