Playoff Rajon Rondo – the “Playoff” is an official part of his name – is a force to be reckoned with. Just ask the Celtics, the ones who were carried to the 2012 Eastern Conference finals on the backs of Playoff Rondo and a fading Big 3. Or just ask the Celtics, the ones who find themselves in a 2-0 series hole against the No. 8 seed Bulls thanks to Playoff Rondo’s absurd April overachieving.
Rondo is one of those players who won’t help you get to the playoffs but can carry you once you’re there. (One exception: the 2015 Dallas Mavericks. Sorry, guys.) Almost all of his statistics, advanced or otherwise, take major leaps in the postseason. But now he’s out: A broken thumb will sideline him indefinitely.
Are the Bulls done, too? They lack for good point guard options, which Michael Carter-Williams and Cameron Payne looking a whole lot less than idea. And they will miss Playoff Rondo, who averaged 11.5 points, 10.0 assists, 8.5 rebounds and 3.5 steals in the first two games. Still, they have a 2-0 series lead. That’s something. Here are some suggestions for Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg on how not to squander that, even without “The (Playoff) Yoga Instructor”:
1. Let Jimmy loose.
Jimmy Butler has talked for two years about how he’d views himself as a point guard. Those comments have been a possible source of reported contention between him and both Derrick Rose and Rondo, though he’s brushed aside both conflicts. Still, underneath any subtext, there’s a bit of truth: Butler might be a good enough ballhandler and passer to run the point.
Butler’s 24.8% assist rate is roughly in line with James Harden’s early years with the Rockets, when he was playing a more traditional shooting guard role like Butler does now. Butler’s no Harden – they’re very different players on both ends of the court, and Harden’s absurd offensive IQ was a key part of allowing him to run point full-time this season – but he is similar in being at his best with the ball in his hands.
So many of Butler’s best plays happen when he gets the ball via dribble-handoff or early-shot-clock pass at the top of the key. Letting him run the offense cuts one step out and gives him the opportunity to carry the team the way he’s long wanted to.
Galvanizing and empowering Butler could be a real key in the second round, too, because the Bulls likely will face John Wall and the Wizards. Butler is the Bulls’ best hope at stopping Wall’s vicious dribble penetration and forcing the Wizards’ defense to adjust.
2. Remember Playoff Wade.
Here’s something just as scary as Playoff Rajon Rondo: Playoff Dwyane Wade. Consider this: Playoff Wade has hit 25 of 53 attempts from 3-point range over the past three postseasons. That’s 47.2%, compared to his 27.8% on 3s in those three regular seasons. Hornets fans got a taste of Playoff Wade last year.
Through two games, Wade has a plus-26.6 on/off rating in this series, best of anyone on the Bulls. Part of that is because he’s frequently played with Playoff Rondo and Butler, but it’s also that Wade’s isolation skills make him a deadly playoff weapon.
The Bulls have the two best, most proven isolation scorers in this series in Wade and Butler. The Celtics are yet another team to find that relying on ball movement and finding open shots doesn’t work as effectively in the postseason, when defenders are more engaged and physical.
3. Stay physical.
Wade, Butler and Playoff Rondo have one key component among them: They’re willing to beat up opponents. They’re strong for their positions, and Butler and Playoff Rondo in particular are excellent rebounders. The Celtics ranked 27th in defensive rebound rate in the regular season, a common problem for Al Horford’s teams over the years and for the Celtics under Brad Stevens.
Hoiberg needs to capitalize on that further. Powerful backup center Cristiano Felicio has made a nice impact this series because of his aggressiveness, while Robin Lopez seems to be everywhere at once. Pairing the two would be one option, and another is stressing to everyone the importance of cleaning up on the boards at all times – and throwing a elbow when necessary. (Taj Gibson would be useful in this department, but alas.)
The injury to Playoff Rondo almost certainly makes this series more difficult for the Bulls. But there are ways around it, ways to avoid squandering a 2-0 lead with the next two games at home. This series has not, as some of have suggested, been the result of a Celtics choke. It’s been the Bulls’ postseason style coming up big with an aggressive approach game after game. That doesn’t have to end with Rajon Rondo’s season.
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