Just three months ago, Bulls point guard Rajon Rondo was pulled from the lineup entirely. The reason: according to Rondo, a member of Chicago’s coaching staff had told him the decision was intended to “save Rondo from himself.”
"I thought it was (expletive)," Rondo said at the time, per the Chicago Tribune. "Save me from myself. I never heard that before in my life.”
There was validity to the idea of benching Rondo, if not the explanation. By January, the experiment of starting him alongside Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade had produced nothing but floundering mediocrity. Chicago had been overtaken for playoff positioning earlier that month, and Rondo’s minutes—including those alongside the Bulls’ best players—were, at best, a wash. Rondo was guilty of the same stunting of the offense and compromising of the defense that had plagued him at earlier stops.
How strange it is that an injury to that kind of player would make for a monumental turn in a first-round playoff series. It was Rondo who had helped save the Bulls from themselves; absent any reliable point guard alternatives, Rondo helped to stifle the offense of the top-seeded Celtics and make the most of the Bulls’ own flawed attack en route to an improbable 2–0 series lead.
Rondo logged 40 minutes in Game 2 out of necessity. The game changed when he took to the floor, from the way he preempted Boston’s sets to his unrelenting push on the break. His return: 11 points, 14 assists, nine rebounds, and five steals on the night. His plus-17 performance in the first half was essentially a mirror of the minus-20 first-half showing that led to his January benching. His play was as instrumental in Game 2 as it was inexpedient then.
Officially, Rondo has been diagnosed with a thumb fracture atop a preexisting wrist injury, which is expected to sideline him for seven to 10 days, according to Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. A potential Game 6 would take place seven days from the announcement. A potential Game 7 would take place 11 days from it. Jerian Grant will start in Rondo’s place, but it’s telling that so much of Chicago’s likely adjustment involves heaping more responsibility on Butler. It’s Butler who will take on even more creative responsibility. It’s Butler who will have to spend more time— and expend more energy—chasing around the Isaiah Thomas. Chicago’s stable of useful players is so thin that it’s most productive adjustment may be to lean on its existing rotation further.
Butler takes the brunt of the impact. Chicago did fine when playing Grant alongside Butler and Wade during the regular season, but the pressures of the playoffs have not been kind to his unseasoned game. Besides, it’s the in-game permutations that may hurt the Bulls most—those moments when Grant (or now-backup Michael Carter-Williams) will have to get by with just Butler or just Wade or neither at all. Even a few minutes of clumsy play could undo Chicago’s larger efforts. The margins are just that thin without Rondo, an astonishing conclusion given all that the Bulls have been through.
"It's definitely a loss for all of us,” Butler said. “But damn. I mean, we wish we had him, but we don't. There's not too much more to say."
If Grant can’t be a bit more stable, Chicago may need to revamp its rotation to maximize its viable minutes without a nominal point guard on the floor. Subbing in Paul Zipser with the four remaining starters might be the best short-range lineup Chicago has available—big, well-spaced, and with enough matchup advantages to keep an offense rolling. The trouble, as with all of this, is how taxing every game without Rondo will be on Butler and Wade. Any diminishing returns could give the Celtics the window they need.
But considering that Rondo suffered his hand injury in the middle of Game 2, what remained of that game proved pivotal. A 2–0 lead gives the series an entirely different complexion than a 1–1 split would have. Chicago might not have the most adaptive roster (particularly after trading away two rotation players in Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott for the mothballed Cameron Payne) or the easiest adjustment, but it does technically have some margin for error. Three home games remain. The best player on the floor is still in a Bulls uniform. The advantage may be slipping, but it’s still an advantage that a shaky No. 8 seed could never have honestly expected in the first place.