BOSTON — The roar began at 7:32 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, and it lasted nearly a minute. Long enough to make seats rumble. Loud enough to leave a ringing in 37,000 ears.
Rajon Rondo had not yet taken the court. But his mere appearance, in video highlight form, was enough to stir emotions and memories and hope at the TD Garden. Then he stripped off his warmups and jogged onto the parquet, for the first time in 358 days, and the real intrigue for the Boston Celtics commenced.
Rondo was leading fast breaks and flinging perfect bounce passes again Friday night, in his first game since tearing his right anterior cruciate ligament on Jan. 25, 2013. It was an exhilarating and encouraging evening, despite a 107-104 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, which ended when Rondo missed a three-pointer at the buzzer.
For the first time this season, the Celtics have a certifiable star in the lineup, even if that star is being held to 20 minutes a game for now. Rondo looked a little thicker around the middle, perhaps a half-step slower, but the creativity and the dazzle were all still there.
The behind-the-back ball fakes. The spins along the baseline. The feathery finger rolls at the basket. The totals were modest—eight points, four assists in 19:25—but the important takeaway was that Rondo still looked like Rondo.
“Emotionally, mentally, he looked ready to me,” said coach Brad Stevens. “Physically, I thought he looked fine, too.”
It was a rare thrill for Celtics fans amid this otherwise-dismal transitional season. In the past 12 months, they have seen their star point guard injured, their legendary coach (Doc Rivers) depart and their two franchise pillars (Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett) traded.
The team that Rondo rejoined Friday bore no resemblance to the championship-steeled lineup he hobbled away from 12 months ago. Pierce and Garnett are in Brooklyn. Rivers is coaching the Los Angeles Clippers.
Rondo is the last tie to the Celtics’ 2008 title team, and their best bridge to the next era—that is, if the franchise decides to keep him.
The question of his future has been lingering since last June, when general manager Danny Ainge shipped out Pierce and Garnett and launched the rebuilding campaign. Ainge has been in asset-collection mode, trading for draft picks and salary-cap flexibility, begging the question, ad nauseum: Is Rondo next?
Ainge declared in November that his star playmaker was “going nowhere,” although speculation persists that he could make a move if the right deal came along. The Celtics are notoriously secretive, so this is a guessing game, at best.
Trading Rondo by the Feb. 20 trade deadline could bring a nice bounty, while simultaneously ensuring a high draft pick this June. If Rondo stays, the Celtics could play their way out of a high lottery pick or even (gasp) make the playoffs and miss the lottery entirely.
And though he carries a reasonable salary for now—$12 million this season, $12.9 million in 2014-15—Rondo could seek a hefty raise when he reaches free agency in 2015. That’s all part of the case for moving him.
The case for keeping Rondo is much more compelling.
This entire rebuilding exercise—the stockpiling of draft picks, the payroll clearing—is aimed at acquiring or luring a franchise star, someone capable of lifting the Celtics back into title contention as soon as possible. Someone mentally tough, dedicated at both ends of the court and committed to making his teammates better. In other words, the Celtics would be looking for someone a lot like Rondo, who at 27 is still in his prime and ranks among the top point guards in the league.
“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.”
Stevens has been coaching Rondo only for a few months, and until Friday only in practices, but he can articulate his value with absolute clarity: “He’s a guy that makes plays for others. He lifts up everybody else’s game.”
Even after knee surgery and a 12-month layoff, those qualities were clear Friday night.
Rondo had to shake off some early cobwebs, missing his first three shots (including an air ball) and throwing away the ball on an awkward behind-the-back pass. Then came the thrills: a ball fake behind his back to set up a driving finger roll past Pau Gasol. A fast-break layup. A spinning move around Kendall Marshall for an off-balance layup.
After sitting for a long stretch of the second half, Rondo returned for the final five minutes of the game and rewarded Stevens with more vintage plays. The highlight: a perfect bounce pass to Avery Bradley in transition, with Bradley converting a three-pointer for a 102-94 lead.
That was about as much magic as Rondo could summon on this night, however, as the Lakers—plodding through their own awkward transition year—dominated the final minutes with their rag-tag cast.
The rivalry is not what it was in 2008, when the Celtics beat the Lakers in the NBA Finals, or in 2010, when the Lakers won the rematch. The teams met Friday with their worst combined winning percentage (.354) in history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. It was the first Celtics-Lakers matchup since Dec. 27, 1996, that did not involve Pierce or Kobe Bryant.
It was the first game Rondo has played as the Celtics’ undisputed franchise star, a status underscored when he was introduced—to a powerful roar—as “the captain,” a title held by Pierce for the prior decade.
Bryant, who is recovering from his own knee surgery, watched from the bench, dressed all in dark tones. He will have another MRI in February, but his return date remains unclear. As with the Celtics, some believe that the Lakers would be best served by losing now and collecting a lottery pick in June. That Bryant should simply sit out the rest of the season.
Bryant batted away the premise.
“I don’t think about that, man,” he said. “It’s my job to be ready. It’s my job to get myself in gear and do my job. So from that perspective, it’s not my responsibility to think about missing games or whatever the case may be.”
A healthy Bryant, even at age 35, could make the Lakers respectable again, at least in the short term, until they are ready to start spending their cap space, either this summer or in 2015. But the Celtics are set up for a faster rebuild, with ample cap room in 2015 and at least six first-round picks over the next three drafts.
And the Celtics have Rondo, who is eight years younger than Bryant and just as fierce a competitor. It was Bryant who pointed that out, in rather profane terms, when he affectionately called Rondo “an asshole, like me.”
The message was relayed to Rondo, who understood it perfectly.
“That’s a great compliment coming from Kobe,” Rondo said with a rare smile. “I feel the same way about him.”