Dwayne Wade, Jimmy Butler and Rajon Rondo sat together in front of the assembled media after Tuesday’s impressive 111-97 win over the Celtics in a scene that Bulls fans could barely have dreamed of a few months back, when infighting threatened to completely derail their season…
At the centre of most of the discord seemed to be Rondo, a player who has been no stranger to controversy and confrontation throughout his career. It’s been a wild ride this season for the former Celtics man, who seemed like a strange, and some might even say desperate signing by the Bulls front office. With the Bulls having now gone up 2-0 in the series against the number 1 seeded Celtics, it’s looking like an inspired move now, but it wasn’t greeted that way initially.
Having spoken about “getting younger and more athletic” the Bulls front office did an about face and instead signed Rondo and fellow veteran Wade to compliment Butler. Rondo immediately dubbed the trio “the three alphas”. It started out well enough, but it didn’t last. Rondo was suspended for one game after a minor altercation with one of the coaching staff, prompting plenty of “I told you so” shouts from the naysayers.
Despite that small mis-step, Rondo remained a popular figure with his team-mates until things came to a head mid-season when Wade and Butler big leagued their young team-mates and called them out for a lack of effort. Rondo wasn’t having it and took to Instagram to lay into his fellow “alphas” and called them out for not showing the kind of leadership he experienced in Boston with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.
Airing dirty laundry in public isn’t usually a good thing, but in this case it turned out for the best. It took balls to stand up to Butler and Wade and his young team-mates naturally appreciated it. They couldn’t take on the superstars themselves but Rondo having their back obviously meant a lot to them.
He was already something of a mentor to them as he’d regularly show up to watch them play in D-League games and he’d stay behind after practice to work with them and offer advice. For all the concerns about his reputation prior to joining Chicago, he’s been a great team-mate and a real leader.
Rondo struggled to win over Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg though and spent a lot of time coming off the bench and playing with the second unit. Whatsmore, the Bulls kept adding point guards to the roster, which didn’t bode well for the veteran. Cameron Payne arrived in a trade from Oklahoma City and Hoiberg tried to work the youngster into an already crowded PG rotation that included Jerian Grant, Michael Carter-Williams, Isaiah Canaan as well as Rondo.
None of the youngsters were getting it done though and – reportedly at the request of Wade and Butler – Hoiberg put Rondo back in with the starters, which helped spark an upturn in results that saw the Bulls sneak into the playoffs at the expense of an unfortunate Miami Heat team.
For their part Wade and Butler seemed to take Rondo’s public rebuke on the chin and the Bulls look to be a closer group as a result of that January blow up. Rondo was the catalyst for bringing everybody together, and although the team continued to be wildly inconsistent over the next few months, at least there was no more infighting. Or if there was, it was kept in house.
Now, unlikely as it seems, the Bulls’ version of ‘the big three’ seem to be as tight as can be. Wade couldn’t have been more complimentary of Rondo after Tuesday’s game and referenced how the trio got together after shoot around and talked for an hour and a half about what they needed to do in order to beat the Celtics.
“He’s the head of the snake” said Wade, before referencing how much he hated Rondo when the pair frequently went head to head in playoff games between Miami and Boston.
“That ‘hated him’ is that respect,” Wade said. “When we played against Boston back in the day, he knew all the plays. He messes up your first option. Then he knows the second option. We were just good enough to have a third option. But he was that good.”
Rondo is one of the most cerebral players in the NBA who studies film like few others. That intelligence and understanding of the game has occasionally caused him to clash with coaches, but come playoff time it’s unquestionably an advantage having a player who knows what plays the opposition are looking to run because he’s studied hours and hours of film on them.
“I think for myself and Jimmy to have someone that’s so locked in, that gives us a different voice — Fred gives us a voice, and Rondo gives us another voice — and we know we can go to him and ask him anything,” Wade said. “He’s watching film all the time. So it’s key when you have a point guard like him that controls the whole game, you’ve just got to play.’’
“Tonight, our job was easy. We just had to play,” Wade added. “And I told him, ‘Way to run your team.’ He did an amazing job of that.”
It hasn’t always been so, but they look to be on the same page now and it’s showing on the court. The Bulls ended the season with a 7-2 run to squeeze into the 8th seed but few gave them much chance of making any kind of impact in the playoffs. Yet here they stand with a 2-0 lead having won both road games against the top seed in the East.
The thing with this Bulls team is they’ve played well against the best teams (6-2 against Golden State, San Antonio and Cleveland) and often sucked against the bad ones. Therefore the playoffs would seem to be tailor made for them, and in their opening two games they’ve convincingly outplayed the number one seed Celtics.
Of course nothing can be taken for granted with this team as they’ve been so unpredictable all year, but if they can finish the job against the Celtics no-one will be looking forward to facing them if the “three alphas” continue to play at this level.
Now I’m off to go and buy me a Rondo jersey in time for Friday’s game three.