Benched Rajon Rondo says time with Bulls 'a lot different than what I anticipated'

Benched Rajon Rondo says time with Bulls 'a lot different than what I anticipated'

WASHINGTON, D.C.—If the Rajon Rondo benching was clear to some, it wasn’t to everybody even as Rondo prepares for a one-game exodus from the pine.

Namely Rondo himself, and one wonders where the saga is headed next as the Bulls near the midseason mark with no resolution to a situation involving their first free-agent signing.

“I don’t know,” said Rondo as the Bulls’ litany of absences have prompted them to turn back to his direction as they’ll play the Wizards Tuesday night at the Verizon Center.

“I know a little bit of what’s going on, but it’s out of my control really, as far as what they have going on. So I’m going to have to play better.”

The Chicago experience hasn’t gone the way Rondo or the Bulls have expected. Rondo came off leading the league in assists in Sacramento last season and although his warts are well-known, he came to Chicago believing he would have autonomy and collaboration with Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg.

Instead, he’s shooting a career-low from the field (37 percent) while averaging 7.2 points, 7.1 assists and 6.5 rebounds in 30.2 minutes per game.

It almost feels like Rondo believes he was sold a dream—one that evaporated when Dwyane Wade came to town a week after the Bulls and Rondo came to terms. He wouldn’t outright say he was deceived but he definitely believed he would be able to have more control over games in terms of playcalling and asserting his basketball genius to the floor.

“Depends on how you guys write it. But yeah, it’s different,” Rondo said. “When I signed here, why I wanted to come here, it’s a lot different than what I anticipated.”

His apparent meeting with Bulls GM Gar Forman on Dec. 31 didn’t provide much clarity either, following a game in which he stated he felt he accomplished enough in the NBA to warrant a trade or release if the Bulls had no plans for him this season. 

And because Rondo is essentially a player on his third strike--with a rap sheet that went from his days in Boston to altercations with Rick Carlisle in Dallas when he was traded there a few years ago--he can't afford any real slip-ups with the Bulls in terms of his behavior or he'll find himself out of the league.

The Bulls know it, which is why they feel no rush to move him or buy him out.

And Rondo knows it, which is why he's keeping his calm about things as opposed to causing a scene.

"I’ve been in it for 11 years. And my perspective is completely different than it was four or five years ago," Rondo said. "I’m able to handle it completely different now."

What was clear was Rondo’s feeling that Hoiberg lost confidence in him in some way—be it his defense, lack of shooting or some other attribute for which no explanation has been given.

And Rondo feels like he hasn’t been given subsequent rope to play through his weaknesses.

“It’s not a great feeling as a player to play like that,” Rondo said. “You’re only as good as your coach thinks you are. That’s a big part of each individual’s success in the NBA.

“You look at James Harden and the year he’s having. D’Antoni turned over the keys to him and he’s having his best year ever with the right personnel around him. Certain guys got an opportunity to shine and play without restraint and certain guys will rise to the occasion. And some won’t.”

Whether Rondo believes he’s in the class of a player who’s averaging nearly 30 and 11 assists or not is hard to interpret. But the feeling of a lack of support is apparent and only in the case of a medical emergency are the Bulls calling on him.

Playing at Irving Middle School in Maywood since his banishment has been the only way to stay sharp during this 6.5-game absence from the lineup, but it changes for a night.

With Jimmy Butler out with illness, Nikola Mirotic catching it overnight and Wade out with a scheduled rest, the Bulls were forced to turn back to Rondo. The conversation between Rondo and Hoiberg was short, but not necessarily sweet.

“Just today. I was walking into the meeting, seeing him swinging his legs, and figured with a lot of people down today…” said Rondo before turning into some trademark sarcasm.

“Just waiting to see. I had a gut feeling today. I had butterflies this morning. I thought, ‘You know what? Jimmy’s out, Wade’s out … ‘’ No, I did have a gut feeling that maybe, maybe.”

Midway through his session with the media, Bulls media relations personnel tried to end it but Rondo made it clear he didn't mind the questioning and was affable and essentially pleasant during the near-10 minute meeting.

"I’m going to go ahead and dance with them (management) then," he replied when a media member said the Bulls have danced around giving an explanation for his benching.

His conversations with Hoiberg since his benching have been limited, and the Bulls haven’t been completely clear with why Rondo was benched, although his fit on this team has come into question with the lack of shooting and his up-and-down perimeter defense.

“Umm, how can I say this…? No,” said Rondo when asked about an explanation from Hoiberg.

Rondo did say a member of the coaching staff—a member he wouldn’t name—came to him to explain that he was being saved from himself in a basketball sense.

“Do I need saving from myself? In this game, you grind through it.,” Rondo said. “It’s a game of mistakes. You play through it. If not, . . .”

Subsequently, apparently, was his benching.
It started in the second half of the Dec. 30 game against the Indiana Pacers and he hasn’t seen the floor since.

“I don’t want to say any names,” Rondo said. “But that’s what the explanation was. (In) Cleveland, they told me I had a -20 in Indiana at halftime. I think that was part of the reason.”

Rondo’s thoughts on the explanation given were predictable.

“I thought it was bulls**t. You know.”

He repeated the phrase "save me from myself," a phrase that was presented to him one another time—the December 3rd Bulls-Mavericks matchup in Dallas where he got into it with associate coach Jim Boylen

“Save me from myself,” Rondo said. “I never heard that before in my life. But I guess (the assistant coach) was trying to do the best thing for me.”

As for he and his coach, he made clear the communication hasn’t been heavy.

“We speak. Cordial. Nothing much to say,” Rondo said.

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Isaiah Thomas carries Celtics at critical times to save series against Bulls

Isaiah Thomas carries Celtics at critical times to save series against Bulls

Isaiah Thomas carries Celtics at critical times to save series against Bulls

The Celtics season was unraveling, and their face of the franchise was stumbling down the stretch. The opposing Bulls had used a 40-18 run spanning the second and third quarters to take their first lead. Jimmy Butler was hearing “M-V-P” chants from the crowd of nearly 22,000 and the Celtics looked lost, just as they had at times in Game 1 and 2 losses.

And Isaiah Thomas, the MVP candidate who had carried the Celtics all season, was at the front of the miscues. In just 4 third-quarter minutes he missed two shots, turned the ball over three times and committed his third and fourth personal fouls, the latter occurring on a charge during a 3-on-1 fast break. Knowing he’d need his All-Star point guard down the stretch of what was quickly becoming a tight contest, Brad Stevens subbed out Thomas with the hope that the Celtics could keep close their eight-point lead at the time.

Instead, the Bulls kept their foot on the gas, eyeing a 3-1 series lead behind the driving force of Jimmy Butler. The Bulls’ own All-Star helped manufacture a 12-0 run that put the Bulls, down by as many as 20 late in the second quarter, ahead for the first time, 65-63.

Thomas reentered with the score tied at 63, missing his first shot that set up the Bulls’ go-ahead basket from Robin Lopez. Following that basket, Thomas strung together the most important stretch of basketball this season in a 4-minute span that saved the game, and potentially the season.

The Bulls’ lead was brief, as Thomas twice drove to the basket and connected on layups to put the Celtics ahead. Next he found Al Hoford on a pick-and-roll set that the duo had run to perfection in Game 3. Thomas then took two trips to the free-throw line, burying all four attempts, and capped the quarter with a pair of assists to Kelly Olynyk that pushed the lead to 10. All told, Thomas had a hand in all 16 of the Celtics points scored after the Bulls took their lead.

The Celtics managed to hide Thomas defensively – he finished with just the four fouls – and the Bulls only managed to get within five in the fourth quarter (with Thomas on the bench) before the All Star point guard closed the door to even the series heading back to Boston for Game 5 on Wednesday.

“The game was not going our direction and the worst that could happen is somebody fouls out of a game,” Stevens said. “Isaiah’s a big part of our offense and we needed to feel better about ourselves and we tweaked the defense a little bit there to try to protect him, but we didn’t feel like he could sit right there. Things were not going our way.”

Much of the night belonged to the Celtics, even if the Bulls did manage to erase the 20-point deficit. The Bulls’ defensive strategy in Game 3 to limit Thomas, who was second in the league in scoring, to just 18 points, his second lowest point total of the year. Thomas’ nine assists were crucial in Friday’s win, but the Celtics wanted him attacking the basket.

They set higher pick-and-rolls to allow Thomas room to take Robin Lopez off the dribble, and the Boston again playing a small-ball lineup the floor was spaced enough to allow Thomas to attack the rim; just two of Thomas’ 10 makes came outside the restricted area, and his 13 free-throw attempts were a stark contrast after he tallied zero in Game 3. Thomas was a team-high +17 in the nine-point win. His 33  points were the most he had scored in the series.

“It helps us feel a lot more confident when he’s on the floor because he’s able to make plays, not only for himself but other guys on the team,” Avery Bradley said. “Sometimes we need him getting in the paint, kicking it out, and hitting the next guy because it’s contagious.”

Thomas’ third-quarter stretch was his best, but not the only time he contributed. The 5-foot-9 Thomas scored 10 points in the first quarter as the Celtics pushed their lead to as many as 14 points. He hadded six more in the second quarter as the Bulls deployed three different point guards – Jerian Grant, Michael Carter-Williams and Isaiah Canaan – at him, as well as Jimmy Butler.

Thomas remained focused as the Bulls’ carousel of point guards with Rajon Rondo out continued to to turn.

“I just try to play the same way no matter who’s out there on the floor. I got a job to do and that’s score the basketball, make plays for others on this team and be a leader,” Thomas said, speaking to the media for the first time this postseason. “So it doesn’t really matter what the other team’s doing because I’ve got to do my job and I’ve got to do it at a high level for us to win.”

Thomas went for the kill shot in the fourth quarter and delivered. Two baskets from Game 1 hero Bobby Portis cut the Bulls’ deficit to five, prompting Stevens to sub in Thomas, Bradley and Jae Crowder earlier than he would have liked. No matter. Thomas drove twice to the basket on successive possessions and scored both times, including a three-point play. That pushed the Celtics’ lead back to 10 in just 90 seconds, and the Bulls didn’t get close than eight the rest of the way.

Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg vented frustration with the officials following the game, noting that Thomas becomes an “impossible guard” when he’s allowed to carry the basketball during his dribble. Thomas said he couldn’t remember a time this season when he was called for carrying – in reality he’s been called for it three times, though not since January.

It was a strategic tactic for Hoiberg to deploy, hoping for any chance to slow down Thomas. The Celtics point guard is heating up at the perfect time, and he’s doing so while still trying to find his three-point shot. Once that starts working the Bulls will need to once again adjust on the fly. As for Hoiberg’s comment, Thomas echoed during his postgame availability what he showed earlier on Sunday night.

“That,” he said with a smile, “is not the reason why I’m an impossible cover.”