The play was rather nondescript. Rajon Rondo defeated his man, Atlanta Hawks point guard Jeff Teague, off the dribble, skipped a pass out to Kevin Garnett at the corner and attempted to get back to the wing for a reset.
Upon landing, Rondo seemed to tweak his right leg. He scuffled a bit, hopping up and down in pain before returning to action, the Celtics none the wiser. Rondo would play the rest of the game, a double-overtime loss, logging 45 minutes without showing signs of injury.
Little did anyone know at the time that that play would fundamentally alter Rondo's career trajectory—and arguably that of the Celtics franchise as a whole. It's widely believed that it was on that drive that Rondo suffered a partially torn ACL, which would be announced two days later prior to Boston's Sunday afternoon showcase against the Miami Heat.
He'd obviously miss the remainder of the season, watching on as his battered teammates were eliminated in the first round by the New York Knicks. It was the first time since Rondo's rookie season in 2006-07 that Boston failed to make at least the conference semifinals.
Suffice it to say shorter playoff stints aren't the only thing that's changed since the injury.
Rondo, named to the last four All-Star teams, returns to the lineup against the Lakers on Friday to a team far different from the one he left 11 months ago. Gone are Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. In their place is Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries, two players with 24 fewer All-Star appearances than their predecessors. Gone is coach Doc Rivers. He's been replaced by Brad Stevens, who had coached as many NBA games as I heading into the season.
Who remains is Rondo, now the unquestioned face of this historic franchise. And though his place within the future of the Celtics is still very much up on the air, his journey back to TD Garden is a huge reason so many have faith in him taking the mantle.
With that in mind, let's check in on a complete timeline of Rondo's road to recovery prior to his season debut.
Feb. 12, 2013: Rondo Undergoes ACL Surgery, Gets Positive News
Most should know by now that the journey for an athlete doesn't always go from diagnosis straight to scalpel. With knee injuries in particular, there is usually a waiting period where doctors monitor the injury and allow swelling to go down—thus avoiding any undue complications for the surgeon.
Rondo's waiting period ended two days before Valentine's Day. The Celtics point guard went to renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews—which, by the way, might as well be his name—and had the procedure done at his Florida compound.
A standard surgery, Andrews reported no complications and (more importantly) no other structural damage. At least in the world of torn ACLs, a partial tear and no other structural damage isn't a bad way for things to turn out. Celtics president Danny Ainge commented on Rondo's recovery, painting the rosiest of pictures.
"He's in good spirits," Ainge said. "He's focused on what's ahead and getting back on the court...He's got a good eight months before we even start [training] camp [for the 2013-14 season in late September]. We do anticipate he'll be ready to participate in all of training camp."
A. Sherrod Blakely of CSN New England also spoke to Rondo's agent, Bill Duffy, who indicated that the partial-tear diagnosis could have him back on the court within six months—well before training camp even begins.
April 11, 2013: ESPN's Hannah Storm Gets Rondo to Open Up
Unlike some recent recoveries you may or may not have heard of (*cough* Derrick Rose *cough* Robert Griffin III *clears throat* it's awful dusty in here *goes outside for fresh air*), Rondo isn't the talkative type.
Anyone who gets to speak with him will find he's one of the most intelligent and self-aware players in the league. It's just penetrating that wall, especially for information he's not keen on divulging, is nearly impossible. His comments to media are usually scant, and his enigmatic personality has at times even rubbed teammates the wrong way (see: Allen, Ray).
So it wasn't much of a surprise to see him go into semi-hiding after the injury. But, with the understandable wallowing out of the way, Rondo sat down with ESPN's Hannah Storm to talk about his mental state and the entire process of the injury, beginning with the realization something was wrong.
"It was shocking, frustrating," Rondo said. "I wanted to play against the Heat that day, Sunday, and I thought I was playing. But maybe 30 minutes on the clock I did my ritual, my routine, I got in the shower and something was telling me this just didn't feel right."
At the time of the Storm interview, Rondo was entering the rebuild stage of his rehabilitation. The doctors had cleared him in the post-op phase, and now it was essentially time for Rondo to relearn everything that once came so natural.
"This is a learning process all over again as far as my leg," Rondo said. "It'll be good for me, have a chance to let my body heal and work on things I never worked on my body before."
Late April-Early May 2013: Rondo Watches Celtics Lose in Playoffs, Struggle on Offense
Looking at the numbers, it's fair to say the Celtics defense was fantastic enough to defeat the New York Knicks in Round 1 of the playoffs. Boston held New York to 96.9 points per 100 possessions over the six-game series, as Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith delved into their deepest waters of Black Holedom.
Failure for Boston came on the other side of the ball, where the Celtics lacked individual dynamism. Pierce wore down after three months of carrying the offense, Garnett wasn't equipped for 20 points or 40 minutes a night anymore and Jeff Green was...Jeff Green. Boston managed to outsmell the stack of manure that was the Knicks offense, scoring 90.8 points per 100 possessions against a New York team with its share of defensive deficiencies.
It was where, after months of actually playing better offensive basketball without him, the Celtics truly missed Rondo. After Boston clawed back for a Game 4 overtime win, Rondo told the Boston Herald he felt like he could have helped the offense—and that he's not much of a fan of watching from the sidelines.
“I don’t like losing,” Rondo said. “I’m not on the floor right now — I’m still a part of the team — but I hate losing. Just trying to do the best I can with my teammates on the bench and the sideline, telling my teammates what I see.”
Oh, and he also gave fans a semi-bummer update on his health.
“I can’t jump, I can’t walk, so right now I don’t know if I’m on schedule,” Rondo said. “I don’t know where I am, because this is the first time I’ve had ACL surgery.”
June 2013: Danny Ainge Expects Rondo Back Even Better, Rondo Gets Weird with Fans
With Rondo's thoughts mostly consisting of vagaries, Ainge at times this summer took over as the Rajon Rondo injury consigliere. His comments beamed with pride, the Celtics president claiming his team's best player would move mountains post-injury.
In a conversation with Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald in June, Ainge gave an update on Rondo's rehab and made some pretty strong proclamations about where the guard's head was at.
"He was doing his rehab in Louisville, and then he went back down to Florida to work with Dr. (James) Andrews for a while,” said Ainge. “Rajon is looking good. We’ve mostly been texting lately. Look, this kid is motivated. I mean, he’s really motivated. Rajon’s a competitor. He wants to be back before Adrian Peterson was back."
Peterson, the Minnesota Vikings running back, tore his ACL on Dec. 24, 2011 and returned to the lineup Week 1 of the next season on Sept. 9, 2012. It's worth noting here that Peterson's knee was completely shredded while Rondo "only" suffered a partial tear.
Meanwhile, Rondo gon' Rondo. He wasn't giving fans much of an impression on what was happening with his knee, but he sure was messing with them. Since it's fun and all, let's look back on Rondo's appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live:
June 25, 2013: The First Domino Drops, as Doc Rivers Takes Over the Clippers
In a move that had been rumored for weeks, the Los Angeles Clippers finally consummated their "trade" for head coach Doc Rivers. The Clips will gave up their 2015 draft pick in exchange for Boston allowing Rivers out of his contract and then signed the NBA's highest-paid coach to a matching deal.
It took all of about six seconds for folks to start trudging up details about the past between Rondo and Rivers. A Sheridan Hoops report broke a story that claimed Rondo once used an obscenity in the locker room and Rivers had to be held back from attacking him.
The story took an equally short time to dissipate, but Rivers' departure was real. Although the two were known to butt heads at times—Rondo has never been shy about being opinionated on basketball matters—they had grown closer over the years. Doc was the only coach Rondo ever had. And he was leaving right at the time that Rondo's professional life was as uncertain as it had ever been.
This is also about the period where Rondo trade rumors started surfacing. With months removed from them all, I think it's safe to ignore them in their entirety for the remainder of this piece.
But they were there. On the Internet. I saw them.
June 28, 2013: KG, Pierce Get Traded to Brooklyn, Leaving Boston Abyss for Rondo
Although it became something of a mere formality from the moment Rivers left—he took the Clippers job in large part to avoid a rebuilding process—no one expected the blockbuster that would go down on draft night.
It was on that night where Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, players who have been around from Rondo's complete transformation from detriment to superstar, were traded to the Brooklyn Nets along with Jason Terry. Brooklyn sent back a package buoyed by first-round picks and veterans Kris Humphries and Gerald Wallace to make the deal work financially.
If you're keeping track: Rondo's coach and his two best teammates are now employed by other franchises. Anyone else starting to realize why this process was delayed a bit?
OK, thought so.
July 3, 2013: Celtics Hire Brad Stevens
Yep, we're in the "Celtics do stuff" portion of the program, in case you had tuned out. If you were, you know, looking for any more signs that Boston was in a full-scale rebuild, Ainge made sure there were no more questions when he shocked the sports world by hiring Brad Stevens as coach.
The former Butler coach is just 37 years old, by far the youngest coach in the league. He's a little less than 10 years older than Rondo, his best player and the guy he's supposedly going to build around over these next few seasons.
At this point, though, you had to see a massive target hanging over Rondo's head as possibly the next one to go. But Stevens, falling in with the company line, went out of his way to effusively praise the enigmatic point guard after meeting up with him later in July, per ESPN's Chris Forsberg:
I just went down there because I wanted to get a chance to sit down with him...We spent quite a bit of time just alone together talking, just learning more about him. I just enjoyed spending time with him and asking him questions, not only about his time with the Celtics but time before. I found him to be really, really intelligent, really, really insightful. I thought he had great ideas. I'm really looking forward to working with him.
July: Rondo's Agent Says PG Will Return Opening Night, Calls Out D-Rose (Kind Of)
OK, we're out of Celtics talk. Everyone feel better now? Good. Now let's talk about an overly optimistic proclamation that should draw a few snickers in retrospect.
Remember, this is still the point in the program where everyone was assuming Rondo was going to break the land speed record for recovery time. From Ainge to even the point guard's agent, Duffy, the dopamine supply was high in Beantown in the summer months.
Speaking with Mark Murphy of the Boston Herald, Duffy gave an update on Rondo's condition, affirming that he'd be back for opening night. For good measure, the veteran agent also took a bit of a swipe at Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose, who missed the entire 2012-13 season due to his ACL recovery.
“I think Rajon’s (knee surgery) was less severe, so he’s more optimistic,” Duffy said. “I don’t think that’s Rajon’s nature. He’s not going to be as patient. But psychologically he’ll be fine. That was a big hurdle for Rose, but Rajon isn’t made that way.”
Aug. 25, 2013: Jared Sullinger Hopes Rondo Will Be Back by December. Wait, What?
Like it is throughout much of the NBA, the Rondo winds were almost completely silent as July rolled into August. At this point in the offseason, the folks around The Association are more concerned with Aruba or the Bahamas than Kevin Durant or LeBron James.
And with the Celtics and Rondo's representatives chirping the sermon of positivity, all systems seemed ago on the Opening Night front.
Then Jared Sullinger happened. The former Ohio State standout appeared on WSYX in Columbus in August, and unwittingly revealed a far more dire timetable for the Celtics All-Star guard.
"He's back working out again and hopefully he'll be back by December," Sullinger said.
September: Celtics Engage Usain Bolt-like Backpedaling Skills as Camp Begins
It seems Sully was getting his investigative journalism skills on without even knowing it. A couple weeks after his appearance on WSYX, Stevens was asked by reporters Rondo's status and began resorting to vagaries.
"My understanding, and the last time that we've had discussions about it, was that [Rondo's return is] very indeterminate still," Stevens said, via ESPN's Chris Forsberg. "But it sounds like it would be unlikely that he would be playing at the very start of the regular season."
Ainge, who had spearheaded the talk of Rondo coming back for opening night, later confirmed Celtics fans' worst suspicions. In a span of just a couple months, October had turned into December—without that even being a concrete deadline.
"I don't think we would ever succumb to the pressure of bringing back a player from an ACL too soon," Ainge said. "We've got to do what's right for him. He's young—maybe if he was 37 and it was his last year, but he's still so young. And he's our best player. We can't afford to make any mistakes in judgment on when to bring him back."
Oct. 7: Rondo Makes It Clear He Is Here to Stay
One thing that didn't change over the summer: Rondo's commitment to staying in Boston. As his timetable got pushed to the foreground, an increasing number of folks wanted to know what that meant for his future.
Were the Celtics merely holding Rondo out to tank the season? Could Rondo be holding himself out until he's 100 percent in an effort to showcase his talents for another team?
The latter question is up for debate. But the former? Rondo dispelled that notion in an interview with CBS Sports' Ken Berger.
"This is my team; why would I want to leave?" Rondo said. "Why would I want out? I've never really backed away from a challenge."
Early November: Rondo Cleared for 1-on-1 Contact
For those of you who followed the Derrick Rose fiasco a year ago, it's likely those words planted above are familiar. Returning from an ACL injury isn't a process that goes injury-surgery-rehab-return. It's a process that goes injury-surgery-rehab-whole hell of a lot of other small stuff—partial return-full return.
Or something like that.
Being allowed to take initial contact is an integral part of the "other" portion of the return process. CBS Boston was the first to report that the All-Star guard had been cleared for one-on-one drills, which allows him enough space to avoid any unnecessary injury on the knee and get some actual human opposition for once.
Ainge conceded that Rondo's return to such drills didn't signify that a return was impending, which seems all the more obvious now. But at the time it was seen as a good sign, one that Rondo might return to the lineup sooner than anyone thought. Not too long after, though, Ainge continued the optimism-followed-by-pessimism train by essentially ruling Rondo out for November:
Ainge on Rondo: "He's making great progress. I don't have a return date for him... I don't see anything happening this month."— Boston Celtics (@celtics) November 14, 2013
Late November: December Return "Probable"
Welcome back to the land of positive news. As Rondo continued to work out in space—he wasn't even close to being allowed on the court for five-on-five work yet—everything seemed to be going smoothly. All reports from Boston were glowing. Rondo seemed to be returning to the same explosiveness that once made him great and all that good stuff.
Then came a report from the The Boston Globe's Baxter Holmes noting that not only has Rondo's workload increased but a return was closer than ever:
Rondo's workload has increased lately, as Stevens said today. Given how he looks, a December return looks probable. Not guaranteed, though.— Baxter Holmes (@BaxterHolmes) November 25, 2013
The key words there, of course, were "not guaranteed." With the Celtics understandably scuffling out of the gate and on a one-way ticket to nowhere—even if they were technically in the playoff hunt in the dreadful Eastern Conference—rushing Rondo's return was never part of the plan.
A December return may have seemed probable at that point, but both sides knew that caution was of the essence.
Dec. 5: Rondo "Not Close" to Returning
About that December return. Yes, the one we were just talking about. The one that was "probable" but "not guaranteed."
Well, it seems Mr. Rondo's Christmas was spent in a suit. And not one that's necessary because of a familial requirement of formal wear at holiday gatherings either. Updating Rondo's status, Ainge, the unofficial official spokesperson of these proceedings, told ESPN's Chris Forsberg that we could pretty much throw out the December return expectations.
"I don’t think he’s close," said Ainge. "Meaning, I don’t think [his return is] going to happen the next few weeks. We’re not on pins and needles about it. We’re being very cautious with Rondo. I think he’s still got a little bit of a limp; his strength is not quite there, but he is making progress. We’re not close."
Rondo's activity had ramped up to two-on-two drills at that point, but nothing more. He was due to meet with Dr. James Andrews later in the month to gauge his progress and would need at least two weeks to get back into basketball shape after being cleared.
Dec. 14: Still out until January, Rondo Is Cleared for Practice
One of the final hurdles in Rondo's recovery came almost 10 months to the day of his surgery. After sitting through 1-on-1 drills for more than a month, Celtics team doctors cleared Rondo for full practice, allowing him to get his first real reps since being injured.
Stevens, being the cautious speaker that he is, put in no uncertain terms that we would not be seeing the All-Star guard until after the midnight ball dropped for 2014, per Jeff Goodman of ESPN:
Rajon Rondo was cleared for contact practice today for the Celtics, but Brad Stevens told reporters he won't play until January.— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) December 14, 2013
This was a qualifier more for fans than anyone who knows how these situations work. As Rose proved last season, returning to full practice doesn't necessarily mean an impending return. It means just that—a return to practice, a chance for Rondo to run 5-on-5 drills with his teammates new and old and for those players to acclimate somewhat to how the offense will flow with a different point guard.
Suiting up for full practice is also an opportunity for Rondo to start getting comfortable playing in traffic and against big bodies. It's one thing to be working with an entire court's worth of space; it's another entirely to plunge into the paint against a 7-footer.
Dec. 31: Rondo to Maine for D-League Rehab Stint?
It seems like a ludicrous proposition at first. Rajon Rondo, franchise player, deigning to offer his skills to the Maine Red Claws, a team filled with players making anywhere between $12,000-$25,000 for their efforts this season. Rondo makes roughly 1,000 times a minimum-salaried D-Leaguer.
You can see where a problem or six might come in.
But it was a possibility—nay, probability—offered by Stevens on New Year's Eve as Rondo neared a return, per ESPN's Chris Forsberg:
It’s not really a rehab assignment as much as to get your wind. It’s going to be his call on those things. We talked about it with him and in our offices. I think he will end up doing that at some point, and I think from a conditioning standpoint, and from a game-simulation standpoint, both in practice -- they’ve got a few more days between games to be able to practice a lot of times -- and maybe even in a game, that would be good for people.
Unorthodox sounding, sure, but Rondo's situation was opening a window into how league executives view the D-League long term. Not only are more and more teams affiliating themselves with a single franchise to help with player development, some view the D-League as an eventual rehab tool for returning players—much in the same way Major League Baseball teams use their farm systems.
Stevens' assertion may have raised some eyebrows towards the end of 2013, but don't be surprised if this becomes the norm over the next few seasons.
Jan. 10: Nope.
For a moment there, it looked like it would happen. All of those overzealously purchased "Rondo" No. 9 jerseys with the Red Claws' logos and colors would seemingly be coming to fruition. NBA All-Star Rajon Rondo would be a D-Leaguer!
Except that he wouldn't be.
There was a prevailing thought even within the Celtics organization that Rondo would join the D-League outfit for a game or two while the club was in Reno for the annual showcase. No massive cross-country flight would be needed because the Celts were on a West Coast swing, and boom-shaka-laka everything works out.
Instead, as reported by Jay King of Mass Live, Rondo chose to stick around with the Celtics. The reason? He had a bad dream.
Rondo on D-league earlier this week. "Just changed my mind. Didn't want to do it. Had a bad dream."— Jay King (@ByJayKing) January 10, 2014
I'm imagining that nightmare opened up some realistic concerns for Rondo. Like less adequate venues. And jealous players targeting him because, oh what the hell, they're 32 and playing for a salary far below the national poverty line. These are legitimate reasons, ones that would make anyone with half a brain consider the cost-benefit of the agreement.
That said, "DNP - Bad Dream" is right up there with "DNP - Old" as one of the most amusing in basketball history.
Also Jan. 10: Sooo...Next Friday? Shhh...Don't Tell Anyone
Yahoo! Sports' Marc J. Spears has earned the reputation of getting the benefit of the doubt with league sources. He's among the most respected reporters on the planet—mostly because he's not a propaganda parrot and most of his stuff checks out. He is very good at his job.
So, when Spears reported Rondo was targeting a Jan. 17 return against the Lakers, the Internet hearts went aflutter.
Right until Rondo and Stevens went out of their way to refute the report.
“I’m not sure where that came from," Rondo said, per Baxter Holmes of The Boston Globe.
“I have not heard that from him or from anybody who would have that information," Stevens said. "We never talked about a specific date. I haven't heard from our organization that a date was targeted."
Rondo would only go so far as to say he'd return before the All-Star break. Which is in February. Because of course.
Jan. 13: 29,233,380 Seconds
Hey, wait, that's [does math] the exact amount of time until Friday's tip off against Los Angeles. Hmmmmmm.
29,233,380 secs— Rajon Rondo (@RajonRondo) January 14, 2014
Jan. 15: 88-Minute D-League Stint and Impending Return
Well, it turns out Rondo wound up being the most famous D-Leaguer in history after all. For all of about an hour and a half. The Celtics assigned Rondo to the Red Claws so that he could go through one practice with the outfit, and then immediately recalled him before West Coasters had even taken their lunch breaks.
With that, pretty much all questions of a return were laid to rest. Spears' report, pooh-poohed less than a week prior, had proven correct. The Celtics were preparing for Rondo's first game in over a year against their most bitter rival on a day they cleared roster space by sending Jordan Crawford and MarShon Brooks to Golden State in a three-team deal that brought back Joel Anthony and draft picks.
Joel Anthony and Gerald Wallace on the same team! Oh my, what weapons Rondo comes back to. Almost makes you forget all about the Pierce-Garnett years, eh?
Jan. 17: Rondo Named Starter
The Boston Celtics revealed that while Rondo will play in a limited fashion, he's been named the starter for tonight's game:
Stevens confirms that Rondo will start tonight. Says he'll play around 20 minutes. On mins restriction: "This is really part of his rehab."— Boston Celtics (@celtics) January 17, 2014
Follow Tyler Conway on Twitter: