The former University of Kentucky star’s reputation as a surly coach killer preceded him into town last summer. Signing Rondo felt like the Bulls lighting a match in a locker room in which Coach Fred Hoiberg already had allowed too much gasoline to spill. Stints in Boston, Dallas and Sacramento offered enough examples of explosiveness that the Bulls appeared to be asking for trouble.
Rondo answered with leadership, his unique brand not fully appreciated perhaps until now, with the Bulls on the brink of their biggest moment since the 2011 Eastern Conference finals. The career villain has captured Chicago’s heart, emerging as the consummate teammate and a major reason the Bulls beat the top-seeded Boston Celtics two straight games on a court Rondo knows well from nine seasons wearing green. How satisfying that must be for Rondo, as misunderstood as any Bull in recent memory.
Those of us who believed the Bulls would have been better off trading Rondo around midseason regret the impulse. The five-game exile imposed by Hoiberg to kick off 2017 looks foolish now, too. Yes, Rondo required discipline after throwing a towel at a Bulls assistant and likely challenged authority behind closed doors more than anybody knows. But overall, the presence of the 31-year-old has been more positive than negative, and Rondo’s combination of edginess and intelligence has fostered respect on and off the court, especially with younger players who consider him a mentor.
The turning point came in late January when Rondo stuck up for teammates with a bold Instagram post after Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade called them out publicly. Now, nobody epitomizes the Bulls’ surprising metamorphosis more than their enigmatic point guard. Skeptics no longer roll their eyes when Rondo discusses his desire to return to the Bulls, a veteran team built more ideally for a seven-game playoff series than a six-month regular season.
“You play 82 games to learn a little about yourself,” Wade told reporters after Game 2 on Tuesday night.
The Bulls have learned to trust a nine-man rotation, Jimmy Butler in the fourth quarter and Rondo to establish the tone early and often. Celtics legend Kevin McHale, analyzing the game for TNT, called Rondo’s Game 2 performance of 11 points, 14 assists and nine rebounds “vintage.’’ A de facto assistant coach, Rondo played with a fearlessness that the Bulls fed off of as they resembled the Celtics team that had 53 regular-season wins instead of one of the worst No. 1 seeds in playoff history.
Seeing the Bulls reduce the Celtics to a bunch of guys Rondo claimed had quit made it easier to believe — barely — but not even those paid to see red could have envisioned a surge like this coming from a .500 team. Both United Center tenants could be involved in first-round sweeps, but conventional wisdom would have reversed the roles for the Bulls and Blackhawks. Not since the 1993 NBA Finals have the Bulls won the first two games of a playoff series on the road, so this represents a post-Michael Jordan-era high point.
Whatever we thought we knew about the Bulls no longer applies. The team that couldn’t get out of its own way for months now looks like it can’t be stopped. A season-long slog through mediocrity won’t define Hoiberg’s second year on the job. A first-round series victory over the Celtics would — if the Bulls can finish what they started. And if the Bulls can, as they now should, the infusion of confidence will make them think anything is possible in the East.
Think Celtics President Danny Ainge regrets not offering more for Butler at the trade deadline now?
Credit for the playoff resurgence starts with Rondo but hardly ends with him. Center Robin Lopez, with 32 points and 18 rebounds in two games — including 12 offensive boards — has outplayed Al Horford, who at $28.25 million annually makes more than twice as much as Lopez.
Butler has let the game come to him before dominating when necessary. Wade reprised his role as a closer, hitting key shots in the fourth quarter, scoring 22 points and even finishing a dunk. Nikola Mirotic responded to his Game 1 disappearance with 13 points. Reserves Bobby Portis and Paul Zipser took turns raising our eyebrows. The Bulls have rebounded well enough to wonder if the Celtics can recover.
“Everybody is so locked in right now,” Butler said.
That includes Hoiberg, a steadying presence who deserves praise for paring his playoff rotation, placing his ego on a shelf throughout a difficult season and putting the Bulls in a position to peak at the right time. The much-maligned coach just won his second playoff game — as many as Celtics counterpart Brad Stevens, considered among the NBA’s best.
“Fred Hoiberg has done a hell of a job getting us prepared,” Rondo said.
In the context of this crazy season, those words coming out of Rondo’s mouth somehow make perfect sense.
Bulls vs. Celtics
Series: Bulls lead 2-0
Next game: 7 p.m. Friday at Chicago (ESPN)