NBA Buzz: Rajon Rondo's rollercoaster ride

NBA Buzz: Rajon Rondo's rollercoaster ride

When Rajon Rondo dubbed the Bulls' new veteran trio of himself, Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade the "3 Alphas" back in training camp, reporters around the country snickered. How could three ball-dominant perimeter players possibly co-exist? And, what would the relationship be like with Rondo and Wade after years of battling each other in the playoffs?

The early returns were encouraging with the Bulls breaking out of the gate with an 8-4 record, and the offense functioning at a high level. But then a December slump led to Rondo being benched, starting off with five straight games of DNP's-CD, and talk immediately surfaced of a possible contract buyout.

But the front office wanted to hang on to Rondo's contract as a possible trade chip, and the coaching staff eventually decided the veteran point guard could have value leading the second unit, imparting his wisdom to young players like Denzel Valentine, Bobby Portis, Michael Carter-Williams, Paul Zipser and Cris Felicio. Through it all, Rondo kept a professional attitude, working on his game before and after practice hoping for more playing time.

Then came the infamous Wade-Butler locker room critique of some of the young players' desire to win after the Bulls blew a big fourth quarter lead at home against Atlanta on January 25, followed by Rondo's Instagram post calling out the lack of leadership from the Bulls' two stars. Again, speculation about a possible Rondo buyout came from the media, but the Bulls' front office kept him around, and Rondo eventually returned to the starting line-up on March 13, ironically after a blowout loss in Boston the day before in a nationally televised game.

Rondo responded with his best stretch of basketball in a Bulls' uniform, leading the team on a closing 7-3 run to grab the final playoff spot on the last day of the season.

Through the first two games of the Celtics' series, Rondo has found another gear. He played 40 minutes in Game 2, falling one rebound shy of a triple double while matching the Bulls' franchise playoff record of 14 assists.

CSN's Bulls Insider Vincent Goodwill wrote about a one hour meeting between Rondo, Wade and Butler before Game 2 that allowed the "3 Alphas" to go over strategy for that night's game. And Wade make it clear in the post-game interview room that he and Rondo are on the same page when asked about what he thought about Rondo during those Boston-Miami playoff battles.

"I hated him," Wade said. "Hated him competitively. Hated him is a respect. I told him tonight, 'way to control your team.'"

Wade and Rondo also shed some light on why the Bulls played so inconsistently throughout the regular season.

"You play the 82 games to learn about yourself," Wade said. "I learned about this team that through adverse situations, this team sticks together".

While Rondo told the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson, "This team was put together in a couple months with, I think, 10 new guys. It's hard to jell that quickly, especially if guys don't have the right mindset. Organizations have to give guys a little bit of time to grow and learn each other."

Or in Rondo's case, give him the freedom to run the offense and direct players on the court the way he has throughout his career. Maybe it took the turbulence of the 82 game rollercoaster ride for Wade and Butler to understand their best chance to win with the current roster is to let Rondo have the ball and make the right reads.

Whatever the reasons, the Bulls are playing their best basketball of the season right now, and have the top seeded Celtics on the ropes. And they wouldn't be doing it if the "3 Alphas" hadn't come to a meeting of the minds.

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Rondo's late season play might just convince the front office to pick up the veteran guard's option for next season, especially considering neither Jerian Grant or Cameron Payne appear to be ready to be the full-time starters.

But there will be a lot of moving parts when the front office starts to piece together the 2017-18 roster. Will Wade accept his 23.8 million dollar player option, and if he does, would he want the freedom to try to recruit his good friend Chris Paul or Toronto All-Star guard Kyle Lowry in free agency. If the Bulls bring Rondo back, they'll be far short of the cap room required to sign an elite free agent.

Another interesting thing to watch will be the Chris Bosh situation in Miami. The Heat are expected to pursue salary cap relief with the league since Bosh's blood clot issue is considered to be a career-ending situation. Bosh told Larry King in a recent interview he still would like to play basketball again, and it's possible he could be interested in teaming up with his good friend Wade in Chicago. Since Bosh will already be collecting his full salary from the Heat, any team interested in bringing him in could probably get a contract done for the veterans' minimum.

If the Bulls decide not to re-sign restricted free agent Niko Mirotic, they could be in the market for a power forward. Whether Bosh is healthy enough to play again is a total unknown, but the Bulls could be the team to give him a chance.

In case you missed it on Tuesday, the Bulls lost a tiebreaker with Portland, so they'll pick 16th in round one of the NBA Draft on June 22nd. If Wade and Rondo are back, the Bulls are pretty well set at the perimeter positons with those two players, plus Butler, Grant, Payne, Zipser and Denzel Valentine, and the center spot is covered with Robin Lopez and either Felicio or Joffrey Lauvergne.

So, the Bulls truly should be thinking best player available, and as I wrote previously, maybe take a shot at Indiana's O.G. Anunoby, who was considered a sure lottery pick before suffering a knee injury last season. Anunoby could be a Butler-type defender on the perimeter, with the potential of developing his offensive game as a pro.

Otherwise, the Bulls could consider a number of developmental bigs like Wake Forest's John Collins, Texas' Jarrett Allen, Creighton's Justin Patton, Kentucky's Bam Adebayo or Cal's Ivan Rabb.

Looking around the NBA playoffs, it's already clear Golden State will be tough to beat. Kevin Durant looks to be 100 percent recovered from that late season knee sprain and the Warriors' array of offensive weapons is unmatched around the league.

A potential second round series between Houston and San Antonio would be fascinating to watch. The Rockets' three-point attack against the Spurs tried and true system offense. Kawhi Leonard is showing the country why he's one of the top eight players in the NBA, but can San Antonio find a way to slow down James Harden and all of those Houston three-point shooters? One thing we've learned over the years, never underestimate the ability of Gregg Popovich to come up with a winning game plan.

Over in the East, the Bulls' dismantling of the Celtics has been by far the number one story, but how about Milwaukee giving the Raptors all they could handle while splitting the first two games in Toronto. Even without injured forward Jabari Parker, the Bucks showed off their youth and athleticism. Giannis Antetokounmpo is a nightmare match-up, and he's been even more aggressive offensively than we saw during his breakout regular season.

Milwaukee again hit big in the draft with young big man Thon Maker and second round point guard Malcolm Brogdon, who might just wind up being the Rookie of the Year. Veteran Greg Monroe wasn't all that thrilled about being asked to come off the bench, but he's been a productive scorer against Toronto. Jason Kidd has a nice mix of veterans and exciting young players. It's hard to say whether Milwaukee can take out the more experienced Raptors in the first round, but NBA coaches and general managers have already found out the Bucks' slogan "Fear the Deer" is no joke.

Fast Break Morning Update: Celtics even up series with Bulls

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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.”