The NBA playoffs are a completely different season. Just ask the Chicago Bulls, who have had a number of peaks and (mostly) valleys in this 2016-17 campaign. It’s really hard to believe that they even got to the postseason. The front office allegedly “spied on” players, star Jimmy Butler said, according to Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times. There was also the “starting, then not starting” saga that went on with point guard Rajon Rondo and head coach Fred Hoiberg. All things considered, the Bulls have played much better since the All-Star break. They now lead the top-seeded Boston Celtics 2-0 in the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs. K.C. Johnson of The Chicago Tribune wrote about how Chicago’s big personalities have come together just in time for this playoff push. How’s that for a complete 180?
More Than Just TNT Bulls: Rajon Rondo Plays Big Come Playoff Time
Perfect Opponent for Rondo and Chicago
A lot of the Bulls’ success to start the playoffs has to do with the match-up. Sure, the Celtics had the number one seed for a reason. They took a huge leap forward this season under the direction of head coach Brad Stevens and the stellar play of point guard Isaiah Thomas. Boston relies on its defense and pass-first team offense. The Celtics ranked third in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio, per TeamRankings.com. That has a lot to do with Stevens and the plays he draws up in key situations to get easy buckets. Let’s not forget about the fourth quarter scoring of Thomas, either.
With all that said, Boston’s offense has not been able to get into a rhythm. Give credit to Chicago’s perimeter defense, as the Bulls have made it difficult for Thomas to create space and get to his sweet spots on the floor. The Celtics only shot 30.3 percent from three-point range in Game Two, and they had 16 turnovers.
The size of the Chicago guards on the wing has really put a wrench in Boston’s offensive game plan. Rondo and Butler have been guarding the 5-foot-9 Thomas, in addition to Dwyane Wade defending players like Avery Bradley. The Bulls also have the advantage on the glass with Robin Lopez, Cristiano Felicio, and Bobby Portis, so the Celtics must make threes in order to compete.
Rondo and Chicago’s wings are getting into the paint at will, with plenty of opportunities in transition and in pick-and-roll situations. There’s not much Boston can do schematically with the team’s lack of height and length to stop this penetration. Thomas is simply a liability defensively, so Rondo has been able to get his bread-and-butter: easy shots at the rim.
Rondo Plays Big Come Playoff Time
It might just be a coincidence that Rondo is turning back the clock against the team he won a championship with, but he always seems to elevate his play come playoff time. Rondo was not very effective during the regular season, as his net rating was -2.1, per NBA.com. He couldn’t get into a consistent rhythm, as he recorded the second-worst shooting percentage of his career and his lowest scoring output since his rookie season, per Basketball-Reference. However, the playoffs are when Rondo really shows up and shows out.
Rondo has dominated the Celtics so far in this series, and Game Two was especially impressive on his part. He filled the stat sheet like he used to in the TD Garden with 11 points, 14 assists, nine rebounds, and five steals in a convincing victory. He’s been the playmaker for the Bulls offensively against this pesky Boston defense. Rondo has gotten the wing scorers and the bigs involved with an assist rate of 39.2 percent in the first two contests.
He’s been executing at a high level and playing at the perfect pace for the Bulls. That’s what Rondo has done in the playoffs his whole career. He averages more points and assists in the postseason than the regular season, as well as posting a higher offensive rating. The guy just shows up when the lights are the brightest.
It’s no surprise that Rondo is getting it done defensively on this stage, either. He doesn’t get beat often off the bounce, which allows his teammates to be more aggressive defensively. Along with that, he’s been able to get the Bulls out and running for easy buckets. Rondo is snatching 3.5 steals per game so far against the C’s, and that’s a big reason why he’s had an offensive rating of 114.0.
His steals have gotten the Bulls layups and dunks in fastbreak situations, which is always a key to road wins in the postseason. If Rondo can keep playing even close to this way (with a superb 14.5 net rating), these Bulls are going to be a tough out for anybody in the East. Perhaps they can even make it to the Eastern Conference Finals and face LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team that they didn’t lose to in the regular season. (The regular season meetings may not mean much, though.) It would be fun to see best friends in Wade and James go head-to-head in the playoffs.