The Boston Celtics are entering Game 3 of their first-round Eastern Conference playoff series with the Chicago Bulls in an 0-2 hole. While fans and pundits alike have been scrambling trying to think of adjustments the Celtics can make to get back into this series, it is now the Bulls who may have to adjust.
News broke early Friday that Chicago guard Rajon Rondo will be out indefinitely with a broken thumb. While the injury will not require surgery, a source told ESPN’s Chris Haynes that it is “pretty serious.”
While Boston fans know better than anyone how tough Rondo is, it seems like the floor general may very well be out for the rest of this series.
This could change things significantly.
Rondo, who was chastised all season and even benched at one point, was absolutely huge in Games 1 and 2, averaging 11.5 points, 10.0 assists, 8.5 rebounds and 3.5 steals and coming within one board of a triple-double in Tuesday night’s Game 2.
His impact has gone beyond the box score, though.
Rondo has done a brilliant job controlling the pace of this series on both ends of the floor and has served as an obvious leader for the Bulls on the court.
And for those who think Rondo’s defense has fallen off a cliff, just take a look at Isaiah Thomas’ effectiveness with Rondo on the floor as opposed to when Rondo has been on the bench:
Tiny samples but how Isaiah Thomas has performed with Rondo on/off court this series: pic.twitter.com/6IzpDNEr9U
— Chris Forsberg (@ESPNForsberg) April 21, 2017
As Forsberg points out, that is a small sample size, but it still speaks volumes about the effect Rondo had over the first two contests.
Clearly, this opens a window for the C’s that appeared completely shut after they were embarrassed in TD Garden.
Chicago’s backup point guards are Jerian Grant, Michael Carter-Williams and Cameron Payne. That’s not exactly a who’s who of riches, and while Grant has played well in reserve action this season, starting is an entirely different animal, especially in the playoffs.
This means that Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade may have to take on more responsibility as primary ballhandlers, which neither really had to do in Games 1 and 2 with Rondo playing so well.
This could throw the Bulls’ offense a bit off-kilter and make them easier for the Celtics to defend, as Boston’s wings won’t have to chase Butler and Wade around screens as much. This will not only hinder Chicago’s ability to score, but it will also allow the C’s to have fresher legs throughout the night.
Of course, it also means that Thomas may get going early and maintain his production throughout the night. The Bulls could always try to stick Butler on him for longer stretches, but pursuing the speedy, crafty Thomas on the defensive end will make life more difficult for Butler offensively.
Rondo has essentially been the captain of Chicago’s defense early in the series, taking on the massive task of having to defend Thomas and shutting down the Celtics’ offense at the point of attack.
With him out of the lineup, a whole new can of worms is opened, and now, Chicago may have to scramble to defend Thomas by committee.
Another factor is rebounding.
It’s no secret that the Bulls have pounded the Celtics on the glass, and while Robin Lopez has been the main reason, Rondo’s ability to fly in from the perimeter for rebounds has also been an enormous component.
Contrast that with Grant, who nabbed just 1.8 rebounds per game during the regular season and has only collected two boards in this entire series, and there is certainly a big difference.
So, Boston could see major improvements in each and every aspect of the game tonight: offense, defense, rebounding and tempo.
It is absolutely imperative for the C’s to get off to a good start on the road. They simply cannot let guys like Grant gain confidence right from the get-go.
Thomas needs to attack Chicago’s defense with impunity in the first quarter and try to draw blood from the start. The absence of Rondo’s intelligence, savvy and length should really open up his game and allow him to operate more freely.
There should also be more of an emphasis on completely shutting down Butler in this one. With Rondo not on the floor, Butler loses his best playmaker, making him easier to defend.
While he is still an All-Star and arguably the best shooting guard in the league and can definitely get his regardless of the scenario, there is no question that Rondo’s injury could hurt Butler.
Make no mistake: the Celtics remain in deep trouble in this series, but Rondo’s thumb injury undoubtedly makes that uphill climb a bit less steep. Boston needs to play harder, fight Lopez more on the boards and stop being so tight on the offensive end. If it does those things, it could emerge from the United Center with a much-needed Game 3 victory.