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Playoff Rondo Just Dominated The Playoff Celtics. Now What?

Greg M. Cooper - USA TODAY Sports

Rajon Rondo’s vintage performance put the Boston Celtics in an all-too-familiar hole. Can they respond?

Rondo Turning Back The Clock

The last time Rajon Rondo played in a playoff series, he lost $200,000. That’s the playoff bonus his then-teammates decided not to share with him after the Mavericks lost their 2015 first-round series against the Rockets. Rondo’s performance in Game 2 of that matchup was embarrassing. He gave up on his team. Playoff Rondo was done.

Let’s be clear: Playoff Rondo is not fully “back.” But on Tuesday night, he turned in a masterclass, exorcising his demons from that night in Houston. Rondo dominated the game on both ends, as the Bulls built a stunning 2-0 lead over the top-seeded Boston Celtics. His line of 11 points, 14 assists, and nine rebounds on 5-for-11 shooting is very impressive but not spectacular at first glance, but anyone who watched saw how thoroughly Rondo controlled the game. From the start, he dictated the pace — running in transition on offense and applying full-court pressure on defense. Here he is leading a textbook fastbreak: 

The Bulls don’t normally run much; they ranked just 20th in pace during the regular season. Yet they also can’t shoot, canning fewer threes than all but two teams. With space difficult to find given their shooting deficiencies, the Bulls can manufacture easy points in a few ways: offensive rebounds (check) and beating the Celtics up the floor (check, thanks to Rondo). 

Another way to get easy buckets? Attack Isaiah Thomas, who struggles defensively. Rondo’s once-elite first step is now nothing special, but it’s good enough to get around the short arms of Thomas and cause problems; even when his layups don’t fall, he can create juicy putback opportunities for Robin Lopez and co. He’s even setting picks to create Jimmy Butler-Isaiah Thomas mismatches: 

Some of this stuff is grunt work. Rondo is a languid playmaker who usually dribbles the ball to a pulp, calls plays, and hunts assists. Now, he’s playing a glue-guy role with uncharacteristic ferocity, all while yapping at his teammates and putting them in position to win. This is the opposite of Dallas Rondo. 

On defense, he can’t navigate screens like he used to — age and injury will do that to a player — but he still has long arms and off-the-charts intelligence. Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer demonstrated how Rondo seemingly memorized Brad Stevens’ vaunted playbook, ignoring decoys and snuffing out Boston’s real actions. But again, more importantly, he’s finally trying. The 31-year-old guard has pestered Isaiah Thomas, and as a result, he’s already racked up seven steals and 10 deflections through two games. Just getting the ball across half court has become a chore for Boston. 

With a 2-0 lead going in to Chicago, the Bulls don’t need vintage Rondo to win this series, but whatever version of Rondo we’re seeing played a massive role in gaining that lead. The Bulls have a +14.5 net rating with Rondo on the floor — second among rotation players — and a -5.4 rating when he sits. If Rondo keeps this up, the Bulls will be playing in the next round, and Rondo will be $14 million up, not $200,000 in the hole.

Does Boston Have a Chance?

It’s not my place to address the impact of Chyna Thomas’ tragic passing. The Thomas family’s grief is not a sports story. Sports are trivial, death is not. Simply put, Isaiah Thomas has been inspirational this past week. 

On the court, the Playoff Celtics have played poorly. It’s a familiar narrative that’s only gaining more traction: The Celtics are a cute regular season team whose star point guard gets smothered in the playoffs because there’s no one else to worry about. Brad Stevens, otherwise a sorcerer, is now the “worst” coach in playoff history. 

His band of excellent role players do find it tougher in the playoffs, but the Bulls are also a terrible matchup, with size and ruggedness that Boston has difficulty handling. Chicago will win the rebounding battle every time; it’s up to the Celtics to keep that margin slim, and to make up for it with better offensive and defensive execution.  

Execution starts with effort and discipline. Boston turned the ball over 16 times on Tuesday, threw countless more sloppy passes, and simply gave up in the fourth quarter. Amir Johnson was a punching bag in the paint. Thomas berated Smart for a poor decision. Smart flipped off a fan. It was ugly, if not bizarre.

Stevens needs his team to show effort and make smart basketball plays. Johnson may not see the floor for the rest of his series, and his replacement could be Jonas Jerebko, a hard-working forward who will gang rebound and be in the right place on defense.

Jerebko changed the tone of Boston’s series with Atlanta last season; he introduced some energy and toughness this time around, too. That said, Stevens will need more than just a lineup change. He’s facing the biggest test of his young NBA coaching career — can he coax elite execution out of a flawed and wilting team? If not, it will be tough to win in a United Center that will smell blood. 

Just look at those numbers. With a 0-2 deficit and the next two games on the road, the Celtics need something special to win the series. They have one special player in Isaiah Thomas, who can win a game by himself. Down 0-2 last year to the Hawks, Thomas put up 42 and 28 in consecutive victories, and this season, the Celtics are 12-5 when he scores 35 or more points. 

Still, it’s unlikely Thomas (or any other NBA player, for that matter) wins four games on his own. Luckily, the Celtics have one clear advantage beyond Thomas: They shoot a lot of threes and occasionally shoot them very well. This Celtics bunch put together 17 games with 15 or more made threes, finishing 14-3 in those games. The Bulls have allowed 60(!) open threes already, per NBA Stats, and if the Celtics get hot, Chicago will find themselves in a series. 

These scenarios are all plausible, but they’re not necessarily likely. The Bulls are rolling, while the Celtics are playing their worst basketball at the worst possible time. Most importantly, Boston needs to execute tomorrow and beyond, and even if they do, they’ll need to catch a few breaks. Still, sports fans in New England are familiar with that kind of thing.  

Edited by Emily Berman, Coleman Gray.

Who led the Bulls in points in Game 2?
Created 4/19/17
  1. Rajon Rondo
  2. Robin Lopez
  3. Nikola Mirotic
  4. Jimmy Butler

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