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What losing Rajon Rondo means for Bulls as they try to upset Celtics

Chicago Bulls' Rajon Rondo reacts on the bench during the fourth quarter of a first-round NBA playoff basketball game against the Boston Celtics, Sunday, April 16, 2017, in Boston. The Bulls won 106-102. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

The Bulls announced Friday morning that Rajon Rondo is out indefinitely with a broken thumb. He suffered the injury in Game 2 against the Celtics.

Never did Chicago fans expect Rondo’s injury to be so damning, and yet here we are. Rondo was brilliant in the first two games, dishing out 14 assists in Game 2 and looking like he knew Boston’s playbook better than the Celtics themselves. He’ll be missed going forward.

So, where does Fred Hoiberg go from here? Rondo logged 40 minutes on Tuesday night; Jerian Grant (who will start Game 3) was bad in the first two games, and Michael Carter-Williams is just bad in general. Rondo’s injury stings not only because he was playing well, but because the alternatives sort of make you want to hurl if you’ve tweeted #SeeRed in the past week.

Alas, here are Hoiberg’s options.

A) Divide Rondo’s minutes between Grant and Carter-Williams — with Grant playing the lion’s share.

Grant was horrendous in the first two games against Boston — he’s 2-of-12 in 27 minutes of action. He has a size advantage when Isaiah Thomas guards him, but Grant vs. Thomas post-ups have resulted in some of the Bulls’ worst possessions of the postseason. It’s the type of “mismatch” basketball Brad Stevens would prefer the Bulls play.

But Grant played well in spurts this season, and it often looked like Hoiberg was overthinking it by giving his minutes to Carter-Williams. Grant shot almost 37 percent from 3 and is okay defensively — he’s not a particularly good decision-maker as a point guard, but playing next to Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade, he shouldn’t have to do as much as a normal floor general.

Carter-Williams’ size and athleticism can be disruptive on the defensive end, but he’s not an intelligent defender, and he does nothing well offensively. When Butler and Wade went on their “guys are taking shots they don’t even practice” rant earlier in the season, MCW immediately came to mind. He’s currently slated to be Grant’s backup, but other options should probably be explored.

B) Divide Rondo’s minutes between Grant and Cameron Payne

Woof. It says a lot when the best part of the Bulls-Thunder trade wasn’t Payne — it was Chicago’s newfound freedom to play a stretch power forward.

Payne was just as bad as Carter-Williams this season, but with less of a sample size. In Chicago, we call this the Mike Glennon Effect — he’s probably bad (in fact, we’re pretty sure), but we aren’t certain he’s bad. We are certain Carter-Williams is bad. It’s hard to envision Payne making a positive contribution in this series, though, so don’t expect him to play.

C) Grant plays 20-25 minutes; Butler, Wade handle rest of point guard minutes

This is probably Hoiberg’s best option. Earlier this season, Butler-Wade-Doug McDermott lineups had some really good moments; Paul Zipser would replace McDermott in this series.

Grant is inconsistent, but if good Grant shows up, it’s in Chicago’s best interest to just play it straight. That said, this should be in the cards — it’s tough to put even more of a burden on Butler’s shoulders, but it gives the Bulls the best chance to win this series. Butler and Wade’s games often overlap, but without Rondo, their collective ballhandling is valuable — hopefully, it’s enough to convince Hoiberg not to give Carter-Williams or Payne significant burn.

A Butler-Wade-Zipser-Portis/Mirotic-Lopez lineup has ample shooting and decent playmaking. The issue would be fatigue; Butler can be trusted to play iron-man minutes, but Wade is going to have to take on a much larger role, too. He’s just recently back from injury and is generally creaky.

D) Divide Rondo’s minutes between Grant and Denzel Valentine

Probably the next-best option after C. Valentine generally looks overmatched in the NBA, particularly on defense — he needs to hit the weight room hard this summer.

He only shot 35.4 percent from the floor this season, but he also hit 35 percent of his 3s, and he’s theoretically a good fit next to Wade and Butler — a ball-moving playmaker that is capable of playing without the rock. As of now, Valentine’s offense hasn’t been good enough to offset his horrid defense. Hoiberg should probably use Valentine in the rare minutes Thomas hits the bench — that’s not a matchup that would go well for Chicago. But if Boston presents a good hiding place for Valentine and he’s hitting shots, he could see some real minutes.

Bottom line: the Bulls are still up 2-0, have the best player in the series and play Games 3 and 4 at home. They can absolutely still finish off the Celtics. But it decreases the odds and makes the error margin much, much smaller.

With Rondo healthy, I’d give Chicago a 65-70 percent chance to win the series. Without him, I’m down to about 50-50. Losing Rondo matters for three reasons:

  1. He was just flat-out good in the first two games. That much is obvious.
  2. His alternatives, as explained above, are either inconsistent or bad.
  3. Perhaps most importantly, the Bulls lose the element of “we have the Celtics figured out.” Rondo was the driving force there — blowing up Stevens’ pet sets and causing Avery Bradley to speak out about the psychological factor after Game 2. Swag is unquantifiable, and usually, it’s cause for eye-roll. In this rare instance, Rondo brought it, and it appeared to matter.

The Chicago Bulls Basketball Reality Show continues, with more twists and turns sure to come.

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