BOSTON -- With no timeouts and 9.4 seconds remaining, the Celtics inbounded to Rajon Rondo. That alone was comforting.
His new teammate Kelly Olynyk set a pick that enabled Rondo to pull up at the arc with a clear look at the basket. His first game in almost one year ended anticlimactically when Rondo missed the game-saving three and the Celtics lost to the Lakers 107-104 Friday, but that he was present was enough.
Rondo, who was restricted to five minutes per quarter, scored eight points (shooting 4-9 overall) with four assists and two turnovers in his 19 minutes overall. "I didn't feel like I was limited to anything tonight," said Rondo, who wasn't ruling out playing in back-to-backs in the near future.
It was a night of extremes. The greatest rivalry in basketball was never less relevant than in this meeting of two lottery-bound teams with no meaningful expectations for this season. The Celtics blew an eight-point lead with three minutes left -- mainly because they enabled the depleted Lakers to go 12 for 20 from the three-point line -- and yet they felt encouraged by Rondo's return. "I thought he was great," said Stevens.
Rondo grew increasingly confident in transition as the night went on. His jump shot, never a strength, looked especially unreliable. The Lakers protected their late one-point lead by daring Rondo to shoot with a minute remaining, and his errant jumper obliged to end their six-game losing streak.
Rondo had a plus-minus of minus-eight points, but what do all of these details mean in the context of him returning from major knee surgery? The point of this game was that Boston's four-time All-Star was back on the floor and looking fit. What impressed Stevens most was how Rondo's preparation streamlined his return. "He's going to be able to get back into the flow of things quicker than most because he's not taking time to adjust mentally," Stevens said. "He's been studying the game like he's been out there for the last 40 games, instead of just sitting there and doing what a lot of hurt guys do -- and that's not pay as much attention."
Rondo suffered a partially torn ACL in his right knee Jan. 25 of last year and underwent surgery Feb. 12. He had been expected to claim leadership of the franchise last season, but the Celtics were better without him (23-20) than with him (18-20). It was the first time he had been put in a position of leadership since high school, and at age 26 he struggled with it.
These (very) early signs of his new partnership with his first-year coach were promising, as Rondo occasionally passed ahead in transition (including a long assist to Avery Bradley for a corner three that put Boston ahead 102-94 with 3:12 remaining), made hockey assists that did not boost his stat line and played off the ball. The circumstances of this comeback could not be more different than the seven NBA seasons he played before his injury. Rondo was the Celtics' fourth-best player when he deferred as a youngster to Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen; now at 27 he is by far the most accomplished player on the roster, with more NBA experience than his coach.
Rondo was proclaimed team captain -- a jarring surprise -- during the opening introductions. "I never told him," Stevens said. "It's something you earn through your effort, through your leadership, through your involvement in the community."
He went on to receive a nice round of applause, though it was nothing like the thunderous standards established by Garnett in previous years.
His debut would have meant more if Kobe Bryant had been playing opposite him instead of watching from the bench in street clothes, as he waits for his broken leg to be re-evaluated next month. If Rondo and Bryant had been in uniform throughout the season then this reunion would not have been so meek. Four teams (Indiana, San Antonio, Portland and Oklahoma City) had won more games than the NBA's two winningest franchises have managed together this season.
Rondo used to be hesitant before shooting, but in his opening quarter he was quick to take advantage of catch-and-shoot opportunities (though he airballed one mid-range jumper). In the second quarter he looked more like his old self. During one drive early in that sequence he tried one of his signature ball fakes but hurried through it without selling it as brashly as usual, enabling Jordan Hill to block the ensuing lay-up.
Moments later, Rondo was back at it -- selling a behind-the-back fake with more audacity to finish a runner off the glass around Pau Gasol. Then he took to finishing in transition, running with the slightest hitch (which may have been influenced by the brace on his right knee) but beating the Lakers down the court all the same.
There were less impressive moments in Rondo's season debut, as when he allowed the non-explosive Kendall Marshall to beat him off the dribble for a lay-up. But in the bigger picture this was a promising performance that may lead to any number of outcomes.
Five weeks and as many as 14 more games lay ahead for Rondo's health to be auditioned before the trade deadline. By then a robust market may develop for him, leaving owner Wyc Grousbeck and team president Danny Ainge with an interesting decision to make. Tonight was the first step in that process.