Playoffs 2017: East First Round -- Celtics (1) vs. Bulls (8)
Without Rajon Rondo running the Chicago Bulls, Isaiah Thomas and Boston Celtics take advantage
Bulls' offense fractured without quarterback on floor as top-seeded Celtics take one on the road
CHICAGO – When this series began, it looked as if it would be shaded, maybe even tilted, by a tragedy that impacted one team its point guard.
There’s no equating what happened to Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas’ sister Chyna – the 22-year-old was killed in a single-car accident last Saturday near Seattle – with what the Chicago Bulls are going through now with point guard Rajon Rondo, his fractured right thumb and the loss of his services for an indefinite period of time. The former is life and death, big-picture heartache that might seize up on Thomas, his family or his friends when they least expect it for years to come.
Thomas’ ability to play in each of the Celtics’ three games against Chicago since the tragic blow is some mash-up of professionalism, hardwood therapy, obligation to the living and a way of honoring his younger sibling. But there’s no denying it has put Thomas, who squeezed in a trip home to Washington as the series shifted from Boston, through an emotional spin cycle.
His teammates and coaches have grappled with their own reactions and feelings for him, and there’s nothing disrespectful in suggesting it all played some role in Boston falling into an 0-2 hole in the best-of-seven series.
The Bulls are now having their own challenge at the point guard position, which could alter the fate of this series.
For the Bulls and Rondo, losing the feisty playmaker and missing out on an opportunity to continue throttling his former team, respectively, qualify as disappointments. But they’re almost entirely of the X&O variety, a fistful of on-court challenges, a really, really bad basketball bounce.
As unforgiving as Rondo’s prognosis is – the Bulls have thrown out a marker of “seven to 10 days” to re-evaluate his thumb, an injury through which he played at least a portion of the second half in Game 2 – it’s not seen as career-altering the way, say, Derrick Rose’s blown knee was in the Bulls’ 2012 playoff opener.
Still, it’s dire in the moment. And based on the impact Rondo’s absence had in the Celtics’ 104-87 victory in Game 3 Friday at United Center, it could be series-altering, not to mention a potential source of what-if musings for participants and fans well into the future.
Members of both teams were surprised when they learned of Rondo’s fractured thumb, mostly the timeline from occurrence to diagnosis ran nearly 48 hours. Immediately on Friday morning, though, the Bulls and their fans knew they were losing the quarterback of Chicago’s offense and defense, any semblance of precision at both ends of the court, an inspiring combination of swagger and grit and an arena’s worth of oxygen.
That’s how the night went, too. The Celtics could execute their tweaked and dialed-up game plan (better spacing and ball movement) without fear of their opponents’ chief disrupter. The Bulls, on the other hand, tried to rely on overmatched young reserve guards Jerian Grant and Michael Carter-Williams. And when that mostly failed, they looked too frequently and too plaintively to Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade to do what Rondo couldn’t.
Not to overstate things, but Rondo – in a late-season resurrection, in a most tumultuous year – largely was responsible for Chicago’s push into the playoffs at all. And in Boston, against his old team, he truly had looked reborn, averaging 11.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 10.0 assists as the No. 8-seeded Bulls rocked the No. 1 Celtics twice. Rondo’s offensive (116 points per 100 possessions) and defensive (99) ratings were the best of his seven postseasons, small sample size be darned.
Rondo, ever since coach Fred Hoiberg made peace with the guard’s prickly personality and style of play, had been orchestrating the Bulls’ attack, finding cutters and open men, dictating the terms overall. Defensively, he was in throwback pest mode, cagey to the max, deploying both his skills and his studies on the Celtics to make whatever they tried just a hair more difficult.
Taking that away from a team as limited as Chicago is like deboning a fish. While it’s still trying to swim.
“Obviously, we all talk about [Rondo’s control of] pace,” Wade said after the Bulls were undone Friday in lopsided first and third quarters. “There’s his ability to rebound the ball, to give us extra possessions on the offensive end, defensive-end rebounding the ball. And just having another coach on the floor. You’ve got a guy who’s been in so many playoff series. Been in the Finals, won a championship. You can’t replace that.
“His experience is unmatched from that standpoint. Just like any injury, it hurts the team in the moment. But we have to move past it.”
Easier said than done. As poorly as the backup point guards played, Hoiberg might be better off flipping the keys completely to Butler and Wade to initiate offense. Things that hadn’t hurt Chicago in the series’ first two games – the Celtics’ 3-point shooting, Avery Bradley’s individual blanketing of Butler (1-of-12 before a small, late, ineffective flurry) – inflicted real damage this time. And Bulls who had done more in Boston (Nikola Mirotic, Bobby Portis, Paul Zipser) did less or little.
True to his reputation, Rondo – who watched from the Bulls bench with a black cast on his right hand and wrist, while wearing a plum-colored and short-sleeved suit – talked of the Bulls’ performance like a coach.
“I’m gonna go home and watch film and see what we can do better,” he said. “We didn’t defend the three tonight as well as we did in Games 1 and 2. I think they got up 37 attempts – we’ve got to get those attempts down. We did a pretty good job rebounding the basketball. But we’ve got to find a way to get into our offense a little bit quicker, and make better decisions with the ball.”
Rondo denied trying to trip Boston’s Jae Crowder along the sideline, as one video replay seemed to show. He also said he didn’t want to burden Grant and Carter-Williams with too much help in real time.
“I try not to be too much in their heads,” he said. “Just let them all play the game. When they want advice, if they have any questions, they can ask me.”
During some of his down time this season – after being benched following a run-in with a Bulls assistant coach, then shifted to the second unit – Rondo had become a mentor to some of the team’s younger players. They’re the ones who missed him most Friday.
“I’m sure some of our young guys, being in a game like this without Rondo, [it] wasn’t ideal for those guys,” Wade said.
Still, Wade chose to credit Boston and call on Chicago to adjust to the Celtics’ adjustments.
“We’re not going to put this all on us missing Rondo,” he said. “If that’s the case we might as well not show up, because we’re going to be missing him for a while.”
Rondo could only smirk when asked a couple of ways about his healing ability, as if he somehow can put some giddy-up in his thumb’s get-along.
“It depends on what I can tolerate,” he said. “I’ll check it every two days to see if I can pick up a ball. But right now, I can’t even use a fork with my thumb.”
The Bulls’ once-exiled floor general was classy enough not to gloat, too, when asked about the arc of his season from written-off to indispensable.
“We’re a different team,” Rondo said. “I go as my team goes. We’re getting stops, I’m able to get out on the break and make plays for my teammates. Guys are running. The energy’s different. The vibe is different. The offense has flowed a little bit more these last couple months. We started to hit a rhythm at the right time and we all had a little bit to do with it.”
As for Thomas, he scored 16 points with nine assists, after averaging 26.5 points and 4.0 assists in the first two games. Teammates cited a pre-game motivational speech he gave, amplifying on a recorded message former Boston star Kevin Garnett recorded and relayed to the locker room Friday. They also spoke of the steady hand Thomas showed in picking apart Chicago’s defense with simple plays and passes in Rondo’s absence.
“He’s still hurting,” coach Brad Stevens said. “I can’t tell … he’s been pretty engaged when he’s been with us, anyway. For me, it’s all about, we have to maintain the perspective that there’s gonna be some real ups and downs, and that’s just part of it. We’re here to support him and we’re gonna do our jobs – play and coach basketball – but we understand that there is a bigger picture and we’re here as his support network.
“As you all know, as you go on, certainly time provides some healing. But you’re gonna always have things. It’s still only six days away. And still a tough deal.”
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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