It wasn’t hard to notice what was missing from the Chicago Bulls‘ lineup in a lackluster 104-87 loss to the Celtics in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference playoff series on Friday night. Instead of racing up and down the floor with his teammates, as he had done in propelling them to a 2-0 first-round series lead in Boston, Rajon Rondo sat on the Bulls’ bench in a plum-colored short-sleeved suit, wearing a black cast on his right wrist because of a fractured thumb suffered in Game 2 and an ongoing wrist injury he’s been dealing with for several weeks. As Rondo watched helplessly from the bench, the entire course of the series turned in front of him.
“It’s a totally different team,” Crowder said. “We felt like with the switching we were gonna throw a curveball at those guys and try to make them as stagnant as possible without the primary ballhandler, which is Rondo making plays and passing the ball and creating for others. We had a good game plan going into it.”
Rondo’s absence has completely changed the complexion of a series that once appeared to be in the Bulls’ control. The Bulls looked rudderless without the veteran point guard on the floor. Jerian Grant, who started in place of Rondo, and Michael Carter-Williams, who backed Grant up, were a combined 3-for-10 from the field and had three assists. They never looked comfortable in the moment and have struggled all season to find consistency within their respective games. So much so that Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg was asked after this contest if he would try setting up more of the offense around Butler and Wade moving forward instead of Grant and Carter-Williams.
“We’ll see,” Hoiberg said. “We’ll go back and watch it and get together with the film session with our team [Saturday]. Get them back in the gym, and then make that decision before the game on Sunday.”
Sadly for Hoiberg, the inability to find a solid backup point guard on the roster isn’t a new issue. It’s been an ongoing bugaboo all season for a team that may ultimately become undone because of this fatal flaw. Carter-Williams, Grant, Isaiah Canaan, Cameron Payne and rookie Denzel Valentine all have struggled to run the Bulls’ offense when given the chance. The problems are even more pronounced because of Rondo’s latest injury.
Rondo’s performances since being reinserted in the starting lineup on March 13 served as a Band-Aid for a roster that has been held together in large part by Butler’s brilliance, Robin Lopez‘s steadiness and Wade’s occasional flashes of past All-Star-level prominence. Without Rondo to generate the offense, Avery Bradley and the Celtics’ defense clamped down hard on Butler and forced him into jump shot after jump shot. It was just the fourth time all season Butler failed to get to the free throw line in a game.
“I shot a lot of jump shots,” Butler said. “When you do that you normally don’t get to the free throw line. But I like my shots, I’m OK with that. Yeah, I have been to the free throw line a lot this year and I think it’s helped, but you got to take what the defense gives you. I shot jumpers. Like [Wade] said, there weren’t a lot of free throws in the game on our side [Bulls were 15-for-15, the Celtics were 5-for-7], but that’s OK. You take that.”
The reality for the Bulls is that the Celtics can shift their entire game plan without Rondo on the floor. After the Bulls combined for 50 assists in the first two games of this series, they managed just 14 on Friday. For as much praise as Butler has earned — and deserves — it is Rondo who has shown to be the engine that drives the rest of the team when it is performing at its most efficient best.
Without him on the floor, Game 3 offered a glimpse of the type of frustration that awaits the Bulls the rest of this series unless Hoiberg can find a better way to get the ball in the hands of Wade and Butler more.
“We understand that not having him on the floor definitely hurts them a little bit,” Bradley said. “But they still have good players on their team that are capable of making plays for them. We understood that we could focus on those guys a little bit more.”