Rajon Rondo (9) is guarded by Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas (4) during the third quarter in game two of the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at TD Garden. (Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports)
Before Tuesday’s Game 2, Fred Hoiberg couldn’t talk enough about how well Rajon Rondo handled being demoted to the second unit midway through the season when he was struggling and the Bulls were headed the wrong way in the playoff race.
After Game 2, a 111-97 thrashing of the Celtics that has the No. 8 seed Bulls two wins from the Eastern semifinals and the No. 1 Celtics soul-searching, all the talk was again about the mercurial point guard who fell just a rebound shy of a triple-double with five steals to boot.
This was a team that was entertaining the thought of trading their best player in Jimmy Butler and there were some in Boston who hoped Danny Ainge would pull the trigger.
Then Rondo slowly but surely began to rediscover his groove. His momentum began to build as the Bulls made their late charge to the playoffs. When the Bulls clinched the eighth and final spot in the East on the final night of the season with a 39-point win over the Nets, Rondo was in full stride.
Now that has carried over to the postseason and “playoff Rondo” is in full bloom. On Tuesday, he had 11 points, 14 assists, nine rebounds and five steals. This was the Rondo that Celtics fans saw in the team’s biggest playoff moments from 2008-2013.
“I just tried to stay aggressive. I was pretty aggressive last game, but I got myself into some foul trouble. Isaiah (Thomas) is a really crafty guy and I just wanted to go out and play as hard as I could,” Rondo said. “Definitely Game 3 is just one game, but its going to be the biggest game of our season and we want to approach it with that mindset and try to go out there and get another W. Its one game at a time, one possession at a time.”
Dwyane Wade has seen it before from Rondo in the postseason. From 2010-12, Wade’s Heat went up against Rondo’s Celtics. In 2012, the Heat with LeBron James were barely able to get past the Celtics in seven games in the Eastern Finals. In ’11, Wade’s Heat team took care of the Celtics, 4-1, in the Eastern semis. In 2010, the Celtics came out on top in five games in the opening round.
“Hated him, hated him, as a competitor,” Wade said of Rondo after Game 2 Tuesday night. “That hated him is that respect. We played against Boston back in the day, Rondo knew all the plays. He messes up your first option. He knows your second option. We were just good enough to have a third option. He was that good. I think it helps me and Jimmy to have someone so locked in. Fred gives us a voice and Rondo gives us another voice. He’s so locked in. We know we can go to him and ask him anything. He’s watching film all the time. So, it’s key when you have a point guard like him that controls the whole game. You just have to play. Tonight, our job was easy. We just had to play. As I told him, way to run your team. He did an amazing job.”
“I thought he was the key early in the game as far as getting us up the floor,” added Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “I thought his pace was terrific. We knew they’d come out and play with great energy. Rajon, I thought, did a terrific job once we got the ball off the glass to push the ball down the floor and get our guys some good shots which led to some confidence. “He’s in a battle all game long. He guarded Isaiah (Thomas) for most of the game tonight; had his hands full with that. When we inserted him back into the starting lineup how key he has been to our recent success. He’s a confident kid and that rubs off on all the other guys. He’s been in a lot of these big moments, championship experience and he’s going to continue to lead us as long as we are playing.”