by JOE COWLEY
NEW ORLEANS — Punches have yet to be thrown.
A few elbows? Some trash talking? Perhaps.
But no punches yet.
Then again, there are at least four more practices scheduled before the end of the regular season, so there’s always time.
“We’ve been very competitive in practice, more than we’ve been all year,’’ veteran guard Rajon Rondo said. “Almost a couple fights. Me personally, I love it. That’s intensity we need.’’
An intensity that hasn’t been seen in a few years, either.
No one on the roster wanted to come out and label last year’s team soft. Instead, euphemisms like “fail to deal with adversity’’ — a favorite of coach Fred Hoiberg — were used. That failure was on display through a good part of this season, even after a large chunk of the roster was turned over in the offseason.
So what has changed? Well, it started in practice with a bit more of that fight-club mentality going on.
“I start them,’’ Rondo said. “I’m the instigator. So I don’t really have any altercations. So no punches were thrown. But we’re competing at a high level now. And we hate to lose.’’
The young players on the roster have been following Rondo’s lead.
“Our chemistry is really good now,’’ rookie Denzel Valentine said. “Guys that aren’t playing as much, really positive. They’re pushing us at practice. We had a really competitive four-on-four game [Friday]. Cam Payne got the best of me. Me and him were going at it and everyone was competing. We’ve just been competing in practice and trying to have a competitive culture.’’
While Hoiberg loves the mentality both on the practice floor and in games lately, he also knows there’s a bit more to it than that.
With a healthy roster and general manager Gar Forman done tinkering, Hoiberg has been able to settle into a regular rotation.
“Guys coming off the bench have done a solid job playing their roles,’’ Hoiberg said. “We’ve got a lot of trust in each other, which you have to have, especially this time of year. And again, hopefully continue to go out there and continue to play unselfishly, play the right way.’’
Point guard blues
The Bulls will have a tough decision to make on Rondo in the offseason, either keeping him at $13.4 million or buying him out for $3 million.
If he does leave, Payne and Jerian Grant will be their only point guards under contract, with Michael Carter-Williams expected to test the free-agent market.
The good news is the draft is considered deep at point guard.
Steph Curry, Jrue Holiday, Jeff Teague, George Hill and Shaun Livingston will all be free agents, while Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry each own the option to test the market.
Rondo reiterated that he isn’t thinking about next year yet.
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Email: jcowley @suntimes.com