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Rajon Rondo’s Injury Puts the Bulls’ Impending Upset in Jeopardy

Now the best solution at point guard may be to put the ball in Jimmy Butler’s hands

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

Playoff Rajon Rondo was back. Now he’s gone again. The Bulls announced Friday morning that Rondo suffered a thumb fracture in their Game 2 win, and he’s expected to be reevaluated in seven to 10 days. If you’d told me one week ago a Rondo injury could ruin Chicago’s season and save Boston’s, I would’ve chuckled. This would happen only to the Bulls.

The reality is this is a significant loss. It’s clear Rondo knows the Celtics playbook, as covered Wednesday: He spent a year and a half with the Celtics while Brad Stevens was head coach, and in this series he’s consistently been where the Celtics don’t want him to be.

Boston plays an unpredictable read-and-react offense, but Rondo has seen it all before. He knows what the Celtics want to do, even when it’s unplanned. The Celtics’ offense operates like an improvised guitar solo: Sure, it’s being ad-libbed, but every guitarist turns to the same licks and phrases. Rondo has heard it all before, and now the Bulls are without their human cheat sheet. When Rondo was on the floor against the Celtics, it was like the Bulls had a coach playing right alongside them. He can still instruct his teammates from the sideline, just as he has all series when he’s been on the bench, but that’s not the same.

The Bulls have been at their best in this series when Rondo shares the floor with both Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade: They’re outscoring the Celtics by 24.5 points per 100 possessions when the three alphas share the floor, per NBA.com/Stats. The Bulls still might be fine when Butler and Wade are on the floor together, but they’ve played only 13 minutes with just Butler, and only eight minutes with just Wade. Butler has already played 84 of 96 possible minutes in this series, so increasing his minutes workload is unlikely. Wade is averaging 33 minutes per game and could see an uptick.

The Bulls don’t really have an answer at point guard. Jerian Grant will have to play more, and he’s been inconsistent all season, though reliable in this series. The problem is … what else do they have? They traded two rotation players for Cameron Payne, who hasn’t taken a shot for the Bulls since March. If there’s a time to use him, it’s now. He will be active for the game, according to Fred Hoiberg. I can hear Bulls fans gulping at the thought of Payne playing. Michael Carter-Williams is objectively bad. Denzel Valentine is worth tossing out there because of the floor-spacing he can provide, but he’s only a rookie.

No matter which guard sees more responsibility, the best solution could be to distribute more point guard duties to Butler and Wade, rather than lean on the team’s bench. They’ve both done it before. Wade has provided supplementary point guard production throughout his career and Butler began to take on the role this season. They often have the ball in their hands even when Rondo is on the floor. “I’ve done it this season, so I’ve got to be pretty comfortable with it. I’ve done it a lot,” Butler told reporters Friday morning. “I’ll be alright.”

The Celtics have had significant trouble dealing with Butler running pick-and-roll with a guard setting a screen.

If the Celtics switch, it puts Isaiah Thomas on Butler, an obvious mismatch. If they don’t, like in the clip above, the play usually ends up in an open shot because the help defender needs to crash to the paint in order to stop Butler’s drive. Even without Rondo, the Bulls can still turn to this play.

Grant can set the screen, then pop for a 3, like he does here. Wade can, too, as can any of their other guards. The game plan to attack Thomas at will doesn’t change without Rondo on the floor. The question comes down to if they can do it as effectively once they get deeper into the bench, and deeper into games. Playoff Rondo is gone, but Point Butler could be here to save the day.