How will the Bulls respond to the loss of Rondo?

By Sam Smith

Now the Bulls will find out if those season long point guard auditions were productive.

The Bulls Friday on the eve of Game 3 of the first round playoff series revealed that starting point guard and series co-star Rajon Rondo suffered a thumb fracture late in Game 2 in Boston. The Bulls reported surgery is not required. Rondo will be reevaluated in seven to 10 days, which means he’ll miss at least the rest of the first round series. The Bulls listed him out indefinitely.

Jerian Grant will start for Rondo, who was averaging 11.5 points, 10 assists and 8.5 rebounds and had been a crucial defender and facilitator in the Bulls 2-0 series lead. Michael Carter-Williams will be the backup.

But it also means Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade will take on more ball handling and passing responsibilities. Though neither is as adept in the full court pace game as Rondo. With Rondo’s pace setting tempo, the Bulls are sixth in playoff scoring at 108.5 per game and fifth in point differential at plus-nine per game. In the regular season with a pot pourri of point guards, the Bulls were 23rd in scoring at 102.9 per game.

“Rondo, obviously, has been unbelievable in the two wins we had in Boston,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “So to get the news we got last night obviously was very difficult. At the same time, the guys who are going to get an opportunity now to play more, this is what you work for and put so much extra time in the gym for this opportunity. Everybody is going to have to be ready to pick up for what Rondo gives us. We can’t change our approach just because one of our star players is out. We need to pick up for what he gives us. And I’m confident our guys will do that.

“I think that we are prepared for this because of the different injuries that we’ve had, and guys having to step in and play very meaningful minutes, and that will obviously be the case tonight, starting with Jerian,” said Hoiberg. “He’s had some starting situations this season, as well as Michael. Michael was starting with that second unit off the bench when Dwyane was out of the lineup. So again, it’s putting guys back in and hopefully not skipping a beat.’’

It’s certainly a setback for the Bulls, but if any team is in position to respond it’s perhaps the Bulls with so many players having taken turns starting and playing significant time at point guard this season.

Rondo began the season starting with various backups, like Isaiah Canaan early and Carter-Williams, who came in the preseason Tony Snell trade. Then Grant worked in and even started 28 games. Grant did have 17 points and 11 assists in the regular season’s penultimate game against Orlando and started from January 24 through March 12 during Rondo’s purgatory. Cameron Payne arrived with Joffrey Lauvergne in the February trade for Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott. Payne was activated for Friday, but likely will not play unless there is another injury.

Rondo came back in the starting lineup after that determinative March 12 loss in Boston and started since, leading the Bulls to seven wins in 11 games to save their season. He hurt his wrist and missed three games, but returned to help galvanize the Bulls in their two playoff wins in Boston.

Grant even starting has been used more off the ball with Butler doing more facilitating. But the Bulls need Butler’s scoring. Wade also has been a distributor, but both play more slowly than Rondo. Plus, Rondo has been decisive in this series rebounding.

“Jimmy is more of a passer than I am, but we’ll do whatever we have to do to win the game,” said Grant. “I’ve had games this year where I’ve passed the ball well and got guys involved.”

Grant averaged eight points and 2.6 assists as a starter, though his specialty was more three-point shooting. He had a big three pointer late in Game 1 when the Celtics had cut the Bulls lead to one point.

“If I’ve done it (playing point guard/forward) this season, I’ve got to be pretty comfortable with it,” said Butler. “I’ve done it a lot. It’s not about me. We’ve got young guys that are stepping in; we’ve got to make sure that they’re comfortable. We want Jerian and Cam and whoever else may play to know that it’s OK to go out there and play basketball. This is the reason that you’re here, to hoop. It’s the playoffs. This is what you wake up for every day.

“We’re going to miss ‘do (Rondo), the pace that he sets for the team, the leadership that he brings, and the way that he plays,” agreed Butler. “We know what we’re capable of. I guess we’re doing this for him now. Without him it will be a little bit tougher, but everybody counted us out before anyway, so I think we’ll be OK. I like the way we’re playing. Everyone knows what’s at stake, everybody knows what they have to do. We’re mixing it up, unfortunately, but I think they’re ready.

“It’s tough when any of your soldiers go down,” said Butler. “Especially someone who wants to win as bad as he does, that studies the game and wants to do well by everybody like he does. It’s definitely a loss for all of us. We wish we had him, but we don’t. But ‘do wouldn’t be in here moping around. ‘Do would be like, ‘Yo, let’s go.’ That’s what you have to do. We can’t feel bad for ourselves now that one of our best players is gone. We’ve got some really good players, some really talented guys that are going to have to lock in the way he did. It’s some big shoes to fill, but we’ve got to have it happen.”

Hoiberg said Rondo is in a cast, but also to help the healing with his right wrist Rondo injured late in the season and sent him out three games. He’s been playing through that injury.

Rondo’s injury certainly changes the dynamic and momentum of this series that had been all Bulls with the two wins in Boston. Boston star Isaiah Thomas left after Game 2 to be with his family in Washington following the auto accident death of his sister. He is back with the team. The Bulls turned into instant favorites with the two wins in Boston. Though this serves as a severe playing setback for the Bulls with Rondo playing his best of the season and coming off a near triple double with 11 points, 14 assists and nine rebounds in Game 2. Plus, Rondo’s emotional intensity and leadership as he went against his former team.

“It happened sometime in the third quarter (Game 2),” Hoiberg revealed. “It sounds like he was swiping up for the ball. He either hit the ball or I think (Kelly) Olynyk’s elbow and that’s where the fracture occurred. It shows the toughness of Rajon Rondo to continue to fight through and battle and play pretty much the rest of that game. Last night, you could tell in talking to him that something wasn’t right. Everybody who plays this game jams fingers and thumbs all the time. But he said this one was a little different. So to get the news last night obviously was very tough.

“He’s (Rondo) obviously our number one pace guy,” Hoiberg pointed out. “He’s one of the best in the league. He’s been that way for a lot of years, so again, we don’t want to change the way we do things, but at the same time we understand that it’s a little different dynamic with our team the way it is. It’s just everybody picking up the slack, trying to give us some of what Rondo gives us, and again going out and playing with confidence.

“It’s indefinite,” confirmed Hoiberg. “He’ll get the cast off next week. We’ll re-do an X-ray and see how he’s doing. I didn’t see that (the team was deflated). I saw a group of guys who came in here with a lot of focus and were locked into the film session that we had and walkthrough we had on the floor. You’ve got to stay positive throughout this. Guys have confidence in Jerian and Michael. They’ve been in these situations over the course of the year and stepped up and played very well.

“You have confidence in your guys,” said Hoiberg. “Dwyane is a guy that we can put the ball in his hands. Jerian can initiate an offense, Michael can initiate an offense. It’s going to have to be by committee to make up for what Rajon gives us. The good thing is we’ve had some experience doing that this year.’’

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