As Rajon Rondo prepared to leave the locker room late Monday, he called across it to acknowledge the Bulls’ victory with Dwyane Wade. Then Rondo briefly interrupted Nikola Mirotic’s media session to congratulate the forward on his season-high scoring night.
If this is the picture of a disgruntled guard, Rondo — whom coach Fred Hoiberg didn’t play for the final 16 minutes, 32 seconds against the Pacers — hides it well.
Rondo’s one-game suspension earlier this season for exchanging words with and throwing a towel at associate head coach Jim Boylen produced headlines — and rightfully so.
But those actions should be balanced by Rondo’s behind-the-scenes contributions, which have consistently drawn praise from teammates for his strong commitment to the team structure.
“He’s always talking, always positive,” Taj Gibson said.
Hoiberg said he never went back to Rondo on Monday because Wade was making plays as the primary ballhandler, Jerian Grant contributed and Michael Carter-Williams provided defense. What Hoiberg didn’t address is whether Carter-Williams’ positional size while defending will make this a regular occurrence.
“It was great to have him out there,” Hoiberg said of Carter-Williams’ return. “The kid plays with so much energy and passion. I know he didn’t hit a shot, but he certainly did impact the game.”
Speed it up: Carter-Williams also helped with Hoiberg’s desire to play with more pace, although the Bulls stagnated again in the fourth quarter.
“I thought Rondo was good early on getting us out with pace,” Hoiberg said. “We’ve got to find a way to keep that going. It just progressively drops off as the game goes on.
“First quarters, we’ve been up around that 25- to 30-point mark. We’ve got to keep harping on it and preaching it. We want to get easier looks down the stretch.”
Carter-Williams did get Gibson an easy look for a crucial basket with 52.4 seconds left, penetrating and feeding Gibson for a midrange jumper and four-point lead.
“I didn’t want to settle. I wanted to get some penetration and try to hit somebody open,” Carter-Williams said. “It’s important for us to keep moving the ball, keep getting in the paint and finding open guys. That’s one of the things Coach has preached.”
Wade lauded Carter-Williams after his first game since Oct. 31.
“It’s great to have him back. We missed that guy,” Wade said. “He’s a versatile defender, can guard multiple guys. And he can run the offense for you, so it takes a little pressure off of me especially with that second unit. I can become a two guard. Once he penetrates, he sees the floor very well.”
‘D’ it up: Not only did Mirotic force a Paul George turnover in isolation, he also showed good discipline in staying down on Aaron Brooks on the Pacers’ final possession. In a one-possession game, Brooks attempted a cross-court pass that Wade stole and dunked for the clinching points.
“Trying to be more aggressive defensively too,” Mirotic said. “Sometimes I’m giving too much space to those guys so they can go left or right. Now I’m trying to pressure those guys so they can just go one way. I’m learning. I know that’s one area I can improve a lot because I’m not expert.”
Mirotic scored a season-high 20 points and showed rare emotion after his critical stepback jumper over Thaddeus Young with 21.2 seconds left.
“It was really emotional for me,” Mirotic said of his chest pound. “It was really important for me, the team. I knew it was a great shot, probably the game was there. I was just expressing myself a little bit. I know you guys aren’t used to that, but I was feeling great.”
Mirotic, who has scored in double figures in five straight games after getting benched for two, agreed that the outburst also served as a release for his recent adverse stretch.