It’s a familiar NBA formula, the impact of the Big Three, that has the Bulls leading the Boston Celtics 2-0 in this first round playoff series. From Bird-McHale-Parish to Garnett-Pierce-Allen to LeBron-Wade-Bosh. Now comes Portis-Mirotic-Zipser?
“Zipser, Mirotic, Portis,” bemoaned Celtics coach Brad Stevens after Tuesday’s Bulls 111-97 victory. “Those guys have had huge impacts on the first two games of this series. I expect it from (Dwyane) Wade, right? I think we all do. Last year, I think he hit less than 10 threes during the regular season and then more than that in the first round of the playoffs. Like, this is who he is. And it’s who (Rajon) Rondo’s been throughout his career. The level that he’s playing at is terrific. And then Butler’s, Butler. But those other guys are really impacting the series in a big way.”
The big man in this series has been the big man, Bulls center Robin Lopez. The Bulls seven footer has repeatedly frustrated the Celtics with offensive rebounds. He is averaging a series high 6.5 per game and overall 16 points and 9.5 rebounds on 14 of 21 shooting with a near unerring face up jump shot. Dwyane Wade broke out with 22 points in Game 2 on nine of 16 shooting and three of four three pointers. Wade is now four of six on threes in the two games. Wade made a total three three pointers in his last 11 regular season games back to March 1.
Jimmy Butler has been the man, big second halves in both wins, the go-to scorer. He’s averaging 26 points, 8.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists in the two games.
But the surprise of this first round as the Bulls host Game 3 in the United Center Friday is the Bulls’ X-factor, actually Triple X, the relay race combination of Portis, Mirotic and Zipser. Often maligned, ignored and dismissed this season, they have taken turns as playoff virtuosos.
In Game 1, it was Portis, dazzling Boston with 19 points and nine rebounds, making eight of 10 shots often in crucial sequences that held off the Celtics. Remember, that was a game coming down to Butler needing to clinch it with free throws with 3.3 seconds left.
“I can’t say I didn’t see it coming,” said Rondo, the mentor to the reserves and young players. “Bobby’s a very confident player. He works extremely hard. What he’s doing right now, he deserves it. He put in the work, staying humble. At the beginning of the year, he wasn’t playing as much, but he stayed with it and things are happening for him. I told the guys from day one: People might not get the minutes that you want or play when you want, but stay ready when your name is called and lock in. It’s going to take every one to win the title.
“Star power is great, but at the end of the night you need all 15 guys,” said Rondo in emphasizing the message he’s preached all season as the team’s evangelist for the overlooked. “We wouldn’t have won (Game 1) without RoLo, without Bobby Portis, without Jerian Grant. So star power to me is kind of overrated. Obviously Jimmy did what he did best, get buckets in the second half. But the little key stops we got from other guys were big for our team.”
And so it was in Game 2 with Portis getting just nine minutes and taking one shot, a three he made. Clever strategy as well. Have the opposition prepare for the unexpected, and then surprise them again. No coach could have managed these two games better than Hoiberg.
Mirotic after the tough start in Game 1 that got him benched for the second half came back with a big 10-point first quarter. He finished with 13 points and seven rebounds in Game 2 and a crucial third quarter three with Boston making a run.
“Niko has done a good job playing off Rajon,” said Hoiberg. “Niko coming out hitting a couple of shots, keeping us in it, was huge…;to be able to get a lead after that first quarter, a lot of that had to do with Niko’s hot start and Rajon finding him for easy baskets. It’s so important for your role players to play good basketball. So far we’ve had different guys step up in different games and hopefully we’ll continue to get contributions.”
And then there was Zipser, the lightly regarded but uber confident German import who after a quiet six points in Game 1 came up big in Game 2 with 16 points on six of eight shooting, adding a pair of threes. The last was the effective clincher from the left corner.
“I think my confidence comes from the game, comes from defense, comes from helping one another. That’s why I am playing, why I played good (Tuesday). When those guys give me the ball, they tell me to shoot it. I know I can knock it down and everyone knows it on our team. So that gave me confidence; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. If I don’t play as good I know the minutes will be a less, but I just do my thing. If it works it works, if it doesn’t (try again).”
“I had the target to get to the NBA, of course,” said Zipser. “I really felt I could do it. I wanted to (as a goal) score in the playoffs and that’s what I did a couple of days ago; now we are up to the next step.”
That’s Friday with that back to the wall feeling from the Celtics. It’s not over even if the Celtics lose, but no NBA team ever has won a series after trailing 0-3. There were three, the last Portland in 2003, to force a Game 7 after losing the first three games. It has happened in baseball and hockey, but never in basketball. But if the Celtics win, then it’s just 2-1 and looking like seven games.
That the Celtics may be heading toward an historic upset as a No. 1 seed is both amazing and apropos given that former Celtic Rondo is having such a big influence in the series. Both in his play, averaging 11.5 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds in the two games, and with his standing with the young players on the bench.
“I’m very proud,” Rondo said about the victories. “I told the guys it would take all 15. Even our scout team did a hell of a job going over the plays, preparing us for what they were going to do. And then our second group came out and played big.”
It was typical Rondo this season encouraging and applauding the work of the least appreciated.
Of course, Rondo, once an All-Star and champion with the 2008 Celtics, could also relate given he spent perhaps half this season playing with those guys off the bench. It’s a true testament to Rondo as a professional to have sunk through ACL surgery, being traded and dropped from the Mavericks in the playoffs, sent to basketball solitary in Sacramento and then coming to the Bulls and being benched, five straight DNPs in early January. Then came the infamous Wade/Butler excoriation of the reserves, Rondo’s Instagram response to question Wade’s leadership style in relation to “my vets,” what seemed adieu for Rondo.
But he went to work, to play, really, because Rondo is a basketball junkie, embracing the second unit, advising and encouraging them. And if there’s an obvious reason for their ability to display poise under pressure, it has to be, at least in part, the work with Rondo.
“He’s been in a lot of these big moments, has championship experience and he’s going to continue to lead us as long as we are playing. You can’t say enough good things about how he’s handled everything this season.”
This was the guy Bulls fans loved to hate, especially in the 2009 playoffs when he assaulted Brad Miller in a crucial, series turning sequence. And, by the way, had five triple doubles in the series. In Boston, they call this time Playoff Rondo for his 12 triple doubles with the Celtics in his playoff career with the Celtics. Booed often in the two games, Rondo has been a fierce competitor and even tormentor. Avery Bradley said after Tuesday’s game that Rondo was yelling to teammates how the Celtics were quitting.
Not that Rondo was ever going to surrender given his love of the game; it seemed the Bulls were going to give up on him. But in enduring a season long point guard audition for his position, Rondo stayed positive and emerged as Hoiberg’s most reliable at the position. He played almost 41 minutes Tuesday with faith, ferocity and fire. Though it was an expanded rotation much condemned during the season, it also cannot be a coincidence that young players are more ready now for the playoffs.
And perhaps Rondo remaining a Bull. What seemed unlikely, if not a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding question a few months ago, hardly is without possibilities now. Rondo told reporters before Game 2 he’d like to return to the Bulls next season and was optimistic about the talent on the team, talent, incidentally, that Rondo has helped nurture.
“I just got to put the credit to my age,” Rondo said about surviving and thriving this season. “I’m 31 now. My role is different. When I had older guys around me, I kind of leaned on them for advice and went through tough times. So for me to be the example, just continue to work and show up on time. If those guys want to listen, I try to give as much advice as possible. I remember when I was a younger cat, I always thought the veteran guys talked too much. I don’t want always be the guy who is talking.”
That’s what was held against Rondo then as a combative youngster, that he challenged players like Kevin Garnett, coach Doc Rivers, guys who liked to talk. It engendered a negative reputation given the media popularity of Rivers and Garnett. Though as you often discover, people aren’t often what you think or what you think you know or see. Rondo is a dedicated worker, an ideal teammate and a natural leader, if not a polished public speaker.
“What you guys write is part of the story, but it’s not who I am daily,” reminds Rondo, generally crusty in public and more cuddly in private. “I guess this year in particular, what I went through, it’s part of the growing process. I try to grow each year, each day. Wake up and try and be a better version of me. Yeah, the older you are, the more mature you’re acting, the wiser you become.”
Rondo doesn’t shrink from the challenge. He was clearly upset about being benched and given DNPs, suggesting a lack of communication with management, perhaps a quick departure somewhere else.
“It’s up there,” Rondo said about this being among his greatest career crises. “My first year we lost 18 straight. My rookie year you doubted if you even belonged in the NBA. The team was so bad, and I wasn’t even playing a lot, so that was a pretty tough year. People are going to form their opinions regardless of what I say or how I act. It’s how life is. But like I said, the people that are close to me have been very supportive. I’m doing what I love. I went through a tough time playing basketball, but I have a great job, doing what I love, and still smiling to this day while I do it.”
“This (Bulls) team was put together in a couple months with I think 10 new guys,” Rondo noted. “It’s hard to gel that quickly. At the same time, I think organizations have to give guys a little bit of time to grow and learn each other. Everyone is not going to be San Antonio: Always keep your guys together as long as possible so they can develop chemistry and make deep runs in the playoffs and go through things together and grow. If that’s the case here, that’d be great. If not, it’s up to those guys. I like where I’m at. I think we have a really good team. We made a big trade halfway through the season. All the things this year with 45 different lineups, we still made it to the playoffs. Right now, just try to stay consistent as possible and develop some chemistry.”