As Rajon Rondo took to the court in Boston for last Sunday’s Game 1 match-up against the Celtics, he was met with an intense chorus of boos, courtesy of his former devotees. Although the reception was surprising for many, due to the Kentucky native’s successful tenure in Beantown, most accepted the negativity as pantomime-style boos, inspired by the heightened emotion of the postseason.
Rondo wasn’t affected by the noise; the 31-year-old point guard started the series strongly with 12 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists, whilst showing glimpses of the floor general of yesteryear – a familiar sight for Boston’s fan base.
In Game 2, he stepped it up another gear. He grabbed 9 rebounds, scored 11 points and picked up 14 assists. Together with perennial All-Star Jimmy Butler and future Hall Of Famer Dwyane Wade, Rondo found a way to facilitate and conjure some impressive play from members of the Bulls supporting cast. Rookie forward Paul Zipser shot 75% from the field, Nikola Mirotic proved a legitimate threat from the wing and Robin Lopez used his considerable size to cause problems for Al Horford.
Chicago fans haven’t seen this version of Rondo since he signed in July of last year. Historically, nationally televised, postseason Rondo has been unrecognisable from the player that has coasted through the regular season, choosing when and where to exert himself on the defensive end.
Few saw Rondo as a game-changing leader prior to this series, but would it have been different against any other team?
Much of the discussion following Game 2 revolved around Rondo’s familiarity with Brad Stevens’ coaching methods, his inside knowledge of the team’s rotation habits and Celtics fans were worried that he had become a serious threat to the no.1 team in the Eastern Conference. Rondo had become the Boston’s Kryptonite and Chicago’s X-factor.
For the first two games, Boston struggled mightily. They depended heavily on Isaiah Thomas, who was forced into difficult shots, due to the lack of help from his teammates on offence. The team seemed to be out of ideas, they didn’t appear to be mentally present. Of course, much of that can be attributed to the cloud hanging over the team, following the death of Thomas’ sister Chyna, but on the court, it seemed that Rondo and the Bulls had Boston’s number.
Then there was then a twist in the tale. It was announced, a matter of hours prior to Game 3 in Chicago, that Rondo had fractured his thumb and was unavailable. He told the media that he ‘couldn’t hold a fork’, in order to highlight the severity of his injury. On a positive note for the Bulls, his right leg appeared to be fine…
Bulls' Rajon Rondo denies trying to trip Celtics' Jae Crowder from the bench: "When you tear an ACL, your leg gets stiff on you." pic.twitter.com/OAjkWXYLTK
— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) April 22, 2017
Inspired by some pre-game motivation from former Boston superstar Kevin Garnett, the Celtics came into Game 3 with a much more aggressive mind-set. Al Horford was able to help the team in a multitude of ways, Isaiah Thomas remained a threat, Jae Crowder began to actually look at the basket and Avery Bradley was at his efficient best. Brad Stevens also changed his approach; he adapted his rotation to ensure he always had offensive options on the court and gave big minutes to his most experienced players.
Boston came away with 104-87 victory, making the series much more competitive at 2-1. They have since levelled the playing field, returning to Causeway Street tied at 2-2. Although the Celtics have been much more impressive on the road, the Bulls have been a different team also. They haven’t been able to find the requisite leadership qualities to control Boston in the way that they had in first two games.
Despite the best efforts of Isaiah Canaan, Rondo’s absence has meant that Chicago have been forced to lean on younger, less savvy guards, leaving the team with less experience and more importantly, without their secret weapon.
The outcome of these four games may have proven something significant to the basketball world. It may have shown us that although we have historically dismissed it as a minor, fruitless detail, the intelligence and inside knowledge possessed by an ex-player holds even more value than we previously realised.