BOSTON — Dashing around the court, dishing to teammates and scoring in spurts, Rajon Rondo at times looked almost the same as he did this time a year ago.
Then the bell would toll on Rondo’s five-minute time limit and coach Brad Stevens would yank the recovering knee surgery patient from the game, and everyone was reminded just how much things have changed for Rondo and the Celtics in the last 11 months.
Rondo returned to game action Friday for the first time in 358 days, recording eight points, four assists and two steals in 19 minutes of action. He started the game by missing his first three shots and effectively ended it when he missed a 3-pointer that would have tied the game with one second left, just barely failing to deliver the play to put the Celtics over the hump in a 107-104 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.
“My speed isn’t what I want it to be,” a relatively optimistic Rondo lamented after the game. “I’m not as fast as I was, but that’s because of my conditioning, so it’ll get there.”
Two days after snapping a nine-game losing streak with a victory over the Toronto Raptors, the Celtics should have started their first winning streak of the new year. They led for much of the game, by as many as 13 points in the second quarter and by eight points with less than three minutes remaining.
But they didn’t score at all in the final 3:12, while the Lakers ended the game with 11 unanswered points — and Rondo was on the court for all of it.
Rondo’s inconsistency on Friday wasn’t all that unusual for a player in his situation, however. He scored eight straight points for the Celtics during one stretch in the second quarter, helping extend a nine-point lead to 12 as a surprisingly spry Pau Gasol kept the Lakers in the game. That Rondo’s cold start and sputtering finish bookended a stellar mid-game run didn’t surprise Gerald Wallace, who has come back from injuries himself.
“It’s all about that first game,” Wallace said. “That first game coming back from injury is like your first NBA game, because you’re kind of shaky. I think the biggest thing is not worrying about your injury, just going out and playing.
“Obviously, you’re not going to be the same type of player or be able to do the same type of things from the start when you get back. Just try not to rush into it and let the game come to you. I think he did a great job of that [Friday].”
The Celtics were clearly intent on getting Rondo involved early — perhaps a little too intent. Jared Sullinger admitted the team was fixated on feeding Rondo in the first quarter, which is exactly the opposite of how a team with Rondo typically works best. They got stagnant as a result, standing around and waiting for Rondo to take a shot, and didn’t get untracked until there was a teamwide commitment to exploiting mismatches in the post with Rondo, Wallace and Kelly Olynyk, who scored a game-high 25 points.
“He tried to change the pace, obviously,” Sullinger said. “We were running a lot [Friday], ball movement was really good. The first quarter, everybody was kind of waiting for Rondo to get that first shot. Although we wanted him to get that first shot to get him going, I think we kind of force-fed him on our part.”
The real challenges for Rondo lie ahead. His new teammates will learn how to play with him and he will adjust to no longer having Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett by his side on the court. He received a prolonged massage after the game, and has lots of epsom salt baths in his near future. It remains to be seen how he and the team will approach back-to-backs, which teams like the Miami Heat have treated with kid gloves with Dwyane Wade, who is also dealing with a knee issue. Stevens was determined to hold Rondo to no more than 18 or 20 minutes on Friday, and he hit his mark dead-on with Rondo logging 19:25.
All Rondo needs to prove now is that his body can handle a greater workload. The mental anxiety Rondo suffered from not being able to compete while he was out was unbearable, but it was clear Friday that the biggest challenge he faces now is physical. His mental acuity for the game never left him.
“Everything you hear about him being extremely intelligent is obvious,” Stevens said. “The thing that I really like about him is how much thought he puts into things. You know, a lot of intelligent people may not study it as hard, and he studies it really hard. [Thursday] night, he wanted different clips on his iPad of different things, and as a coach, you love that. He’s a competitive guy. It’s not been fun for him to sit over there.”
Rondo is still sitting, not as much as he was during his rehab, but still much more than he would like. Yet he understands that medical reality presents some limitations, and that he can’t be the same player he once was.
Not yet, anyway, but soon enough.