One player can change a game, a playoff series, a direction of a franchise.
That player is Rajon Rondo, as his absence robbed the Bulls of their structure, their confidence and their edge. His absence gave the Boston Celtics new life, turning this surprising series on a trifle as they stormed into the United Center and took Game 3 of the first-round playoff series with a 104-87 win Friday night.
The Celtics have a chance to reset the series on Sunday evening with a win as the Bulls looked nothing like the confident outfit that stole two games in TD Garden to start the series.
The direct effect of Rondo being in a sportcoat was highlighted by Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade’s statsheet and the mere sight of Jerian Grant and Michael Carter-Williams, things that should scare even the most ardent Bulls optimist.
Butler couldn’t find decent driving lanes all game, and along with Wade, was forced to try too much one-on-one play, feeding right into the Celtics’ hands.
The two combined to shoot 13 for 39, part of a miserable, disjointed and ugly offensive performance where they shot just 38 percent and tallied only 11 assists compared to 28 in Game 2 and 22 in Game 1.
“You got a guy who's been in so many playoff series, finals, championships,” Wade said. “You can't replace that. Our guys gotta come in and be better. But we can't replace what Rondo brings. With every injury and every blow, it hurts the team in the moment and we have to move past it. We have to, with our point guards and young players on this roster, to be better.”
Butler, who goes to the line nine times a game in the regular season and averaged the same amount in the first two games, didn’t see a free throw at all due to solid defense from Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley.
“Shot a lot of jump shots,” Butler said simply. “When you do that, you don't get to the free throw line. I like my shots, I'm okay with that. I have been to the free throw line a lot this year and I think it's helped. But you gotta take what the defense gives you. I shot jumpers.”
Add to the fact Grant and Carter-Williams could barely get the ball upcourt and certainly couldn’t be counted on making simple entry passes made for an easy win for the Celtics, who were desperate for a win.
Seven of the Bulls’ 17 turnovers came from the point guards, who combined to shoot three for 10.
“We do have confidence on those other guys,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “The experience of getting that first start for Jerian, we’ll go back and watch the film on what we’re gonna do. Anytime he’s filled in that spot, he’s done a solid job for us.”
It didn’t translate and now Hoiberg has to instill some level of confidence in his point guards if he’s going to continue to play them for the remainder of the series, as they looked downright spooked in the atmosphere of the postseason—at home, no less.
“I think human nature might have a bit of that but you can’t allow that to happen,” Hoiberg said. “We have confidence in our guards, they’ve given us good play this year. We need to put in things that are simple, try to create some confidence for those players.”
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Without Rondo, they’ve missed more than stability at the position and pace and smarts; They’re without their version of a Celtics cheat code and the pendulum of confidence seems to have swung.
“I'm sure some of our young guys, being in the game without Rondo, it wasn't ideal for those guys,” Wade said. “He means so much to our team, he's been a great leader to those guys. Once the ball goes up, you gotta play.”
“We're not gonna put this all on missing Rondo because if that's the case you might as well not show up because we'll be missing him for awhile.”
The Celtics’ confidence showed in their approach to the game, as they took a 20-10 lead and stretched it to 18 before the end of the first by stretching their range, hitting seven of their 17 3-point baskets.
“Bottom line, tonight they came and threw the first punch. It took us a whole quarter to respond,” Hoiberg said.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens made a lineup change before the start, leaving Al Horford as his only true big and inserting wing Gerald Green in the first five instead of Amir Johnson. Green scored just eight but the personnel change allowed the Celtics to play faster as they spread the floor and relentlessly zigged and zagged until the Bulls said “Uncle”.
Horford was getting dominated by Robin Lopez on the glass in the first two games but rebounded in a big way, scoring 18 with eight rebounds and six assists. Even though the Bulls wound up restoring a bit of order in the second by playing Butler, Wade and Paul Zipser to create length against the Celtics guards, cutting a 20-point lead down to one only lasted for so long before the Celtics again took control in the third with a 32-22 advantage.
“We have to. We feel we have to play better defensively,” Wade said. “Offensively will take care of itself. They came out offensively and put it on us. The offense is the shiny part of it but if we do what we need to do defensively, we'll be fine.”
The Celtics didn’t turn the ball over as much as they did at home, and had balanced scoring across the board as Bradley was efficient on offense and hellish on ballhandlers, finishing with 15 points, seven assists and seven rebounds in 36 minutes.
Crowder was just six of 15 but was a plus-23 and scored 16, as every Celtic starter hit at least two triples, keeping the Bulls on their heels all night.
“It’s a totally different team,” Crowder said. “We felt like with the switching we’d really throw a curveball at him. Try to make them stagnant as possible without the primary ball handler which is Rondo, passing the ball and creating for others. We had a good game plan going into it.”
Isaiah Thomas showed his value once he wasn’t hounded by Rondo, making Wade and Butler work on the defensive end and freeing things up on the outside. He didn’t have an offensive explosion, although he drew enough attention to find Horford multiple times for duck-ins and dunks.
His nine assists to go with his 16 points displayed a smart enough floor game, but one would think he’s going to find his range sooner rather than later—which should scare the team that has to face him Sunday afternoon.
A series can turn on a trifle, and that trifle has turned.