Did you write an obituary for your beloved Boston Celtics? A eulogy? Were you holding a vigil or saying prayers? For those who did, the Celtics served up a reminder of why they won 53 games this year in dominating Games 3 and 4 after their bench and complementary players were completely outclassed in the first two games of this series. Rajon Rondo’s injury was a HUGE break for the Celtics. They still had to take advantage. Mission accomplished.
It was midway through the fourth quarter of Game 3 when it dawned on me that the Bulls couldn’t possibly have many assists in the game. Low and behold, it was 31 assists to 10 in favor of the Celtics roughly midway through the fourth. Boston ended up with an astounding 34 dimes (only 7 field goals were unassisted all night). But let’s focus on the Bulls for a minute. In the first two games, Rondo provided a rhythm that allowed EVERYONE to get involved. Bobby Portis, Robin Lopez, Paul Zipser, Nikola Mirotic. The vast majority of that production, as evidenced by their paltry assist total in Game 3, was provided by Rondo creating off the dribble.
Fast forward to Game 4. With Rondo out, Jimmy Butler continually put his head down and tried to make plays. It worked given he shot 23 free throws, more than the entire Celtics team. However, the Bulls have become essentially an isolation offense without Rondo. That’s a tough way to make a living against Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart and Jae Crowder, with Al Horford looming as a shot blocking help presence, and it showed the last two games. In the first two games, the Bulls made 84 field goals on 180 attempts (46.7%). In the two games in Chicago, though, they shot 65 for 160 (40.1%). To take that further, the Bulls knocked down 18 of 51 three-point attempts (35%) in the first two games. In the two games without Rondo, Chicago shot 11 of 45 from distance (24.4%). Rondo’s absence has stripped the Bulls of really their only player besides Butler who can consistently make plays off the dribble. The effect has been obvious.
To make matters worse for the Bulls, Rondo has left a crater-sized hole at point guard. They’ve tried Jerian Grant, who is no match for Isiah Thomas. They’ve tried Michael Carter-Williams, but his lack of shooting squeezes the floor for them. Fred Hoiberg finally found something in Isiah Canaan, but it took him too long to find him. It will be interesting to see if Canaan can provide them a lift in Boston. The Bulls cannot expect another Butler free throw parade in Game 5.
Celtics fans know Rondo. They know that while he was a complementary piece when the Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett Celtics were at their peak, he was arguably their best player by the end of their run. They know that if Dwyane Wade didn’t drag him down and dislocate his elbow in the 2011 playoffs, the Celtics very well could have won that series. Forget what he did in the regular season. He is a veteran player who knows when NBA basketball matters. He’s gone toe to toe with some of the greatest of ALL TIME and held his own. He was playing with the type of effort defensively that we remember him playing in similar big games. His loss provided the Celtics with an enormous opportunity.
I have much respect for Isiah Thomas for his effort in Game 1, the day after learning that his younger sister had died. He’s got a ton of heart. He was clearly affected. I think we should appreciate the fragile psychology that that tragic event caused the team. You’ve worked so hard all year, you get the top seed and you’re one day away from starting your playoff run. Then the news hits. You have to TOTALLY switch gears, from being completely locked in on the task at hand to consoling your teammate. That’s a big adjustment, especially for a younger team. The good news? While it hurt in the short term, it is going to make this team stronger in the long run. We’re seeing it already.