- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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BOSTON -- The Boston Celtics really could have just shown a replay of Friday's first quarter, the one in which Rajon Rondo scored 15 points in less than eight minutes while playing against his former team for the first time just two weeks after the trade that delivered him to the Dallas Mavericks. But a diligent staffer had spent a lot of time and effort cramming eight-plus seasons' worth of Rondo highlights into 90 seconds, so the team stuck with the plan.
And as the first frame of Rondo's tribute video appeared on the TD Garden video board during a television timeout, a hush fell over the crowd. The Boston faithful had already showered Rondo with one loud ovation during the coming attractions of lineup introductions; now it was the featured attraction and one last trip down memory lane for the final castoff from the beloved 2008 championship team.
A quote from Rondo ("My time in Boston has meant so much. The love I have for the most loyal and supportive fans is unmatched.") appeared over an aerial shot of the city. Then came a black-and-white flashback from ESPN's 2006 draft broadcast and a report that the Celtics were attempting to trade for a chance to nab Rondo.
A dizzying display of slick ballhandling and fancy assists followed, punctuated by some of Rondo's most memorable moments in green as Coldplay's "Sky Full of Stars" blared.
There was a soaring slam between Dwight Howard and Rashard Lewis. Rondo's undersized but overly aggressive defense against LeBron James. The Kevin Garnett-inspired knuckle push-ups on the Garden parquet, and Rondo invading the Miami huddle as James elbowed him away.
There was the elbow dislocation from the 2011 playoffs and Rondo's improbable return soon after. The sliding chase-down of a loose ball under Jason Williams from the 2010 Eastern Conference finals that finished with Rondo's layup.
There was the ridiculous, spinning, behind-the-back feed to Ray Allen in Golden State -- maybe Rondo's sexiest assist ever -- and a glimpse of his signature fake-behind-the-back-pass into a layup. Oh, and that poster dunk over Chris Bosh in Miami.
There were highlights from his work in the community, handing out turkeys on Thanksgiving and bikes for Christmas.
The video closed with a series of Rondo highlights from the 2008 NBA Finals before Rondo and his teammates danced in a champagne-soaked locker room. A still frame of Rondo clutching the Larry O'Brien trophy with the words "Thank you, Rajon!" led to the next standing ovation.
As the video rolled, Rondo occasionally glanced skyward, but he never looked for long, knowing that he wouldn't be able to control his emotions if he kept watching. Every now and then, he'd take a sip from a water bottle and spy the video board. He breathed hard and likely pondered Paul Pierce's advice earlier this week to just keep blinking to prevent any tears from falling.
The Celtics barely huddled. Like the fans, Rondo's former teammates were all fixed on the video board. When the montage ended, they all stood clapping for him on the opposite sideline. Rondo collected himself, got a pep talk from a Dallas assistant and walked toward midcourt, where he waved to the crowd.
Rondo seemed to be savoring the moment as "Thank You Rondo" and a green No. 9 spun around the video boards in the concourse.
Rondo's new teammates soon joined the ovation, while behind them Celtics owners Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca, along with Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, were on their feet and clapping. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban tweeted an appreciation for the tribute.
As players returned to the court for the start of the second quarter, Rondo crossed over toward the Celtics bench and hugged Angie Pallotta, mother of Jim Pallotta, a member of the Celtics' ownership group, and the owner of an Italian restaurant in the North End, Nebo, that Rondo frequented. Angie sat in her courtside seat near the Celtics' bench, the same seat she has sat in throughout Rondo's career in Boston.
There was a quick squeeze for Celtics trainer Ed Lacerte, one of the few remaining faces from that 2008 title team and a man who spent countless late nights performing the postgame maintenance on Rondo's body that kept him upright.
Brandon Bass, maybe Rondo's closest friend on the team in recent seasons, got a quick dap, too. Rondo would later joke, "No tears, [but] I seen B-Bass blink a couple times."
The Celtics were hoping the video might take Rondo out of the groove he was clearly in after making all six of his shots in the first quarter. It didn't happen. He went on to make a career-high five 3-pointers while scoring a season-high 29 points and pacing the Mavericks to a 119-101 triumph.
About 40 minutes after the game, Rondo -- wearing a blue bomber jacket with black, fur collar and a matching shiny black tie -- plopped into a chair at a makeshift podium inside the TD Garden press room and breathed deep.
"It was a special day today," said Rondo. "I'm emotionally tired, physically tired. I'm drained right now. It was a tough game to get through."
Rondo added: "I don't think I've ever been this tired after a game before, where it's even hard to talk to you guys right now. I'm tired."
Those former teammates who had gone through this before, including former captain Pierce, had warned him about how daunting this night would be. Rondo said he was just happy to come out with a win.
But playing the way he did against his former team had to feel pretty good, too. Rondo had admitted that being traded to Dallas has reinvigorated him at both ends of the floor.
In Boston, he turned back the clock and played like the All-Star he was before ACL surgery and Boston's plunge into a rebuilding process while he worked his way back.
The 28-year-old seems to be savoring the little moments, such as the post-video ovation, even more as he embarks on a new journey after nine years in Boston.
"I'm very blessed to be playing basketball," said Rondo. "I took a long time off from my ACL injury, and I think I took basketball for granted up until a certain point, being able to go out there every night and do what I love to do. I don't know if I was able to show this much here as a Celtic, I'm still very humbled and blessed to be playing basketball, something I love to do every night. I don't take it for granted, that's just how I play the game."
Rondo won't soon forget this day. He smiled when he saw the overflow throng of reporters waiting for him at Dallas' morning shootaround, then playfully tried to mess with reporters (as he always did here) by moving behind the scorer's table -- creating a makeshift blockade from the reporters who were positioned on the other side.
Rondo eventually jumped up on the scorer's table and discussed how he learned he was traded ("I woke up and I [saw] Danny [Ainge] popped up [on my cellphone], so I was like, 'Oh, s---,'") and offered candid thoughts about his play in Boston before the deal ("I haven't played defense in a couple years. ... But [in Dallas] they expect me to play defense, and, in the West, if you don't play defense, you'll get embarrassed every night at the point guard position.")
Despite his familiarity with the arena, Rondo stayed for an extended shooting session following the shootaround in hopes that it might calm his nerves a bit. Before the game, he returned to the parquet for more shots, all while taking time to catch up with the former Celtics teammates and staffers he bid farewell to just two weeks ago.
Rondo even found a moment to chat briefly with Brad Stevens outside the coach's office before the game. Stevens said, "I think he's in a great place, emotionally, and I'm hopeful that he does well -- I prefer it's after tonight."
No such luck, Coach. Rondo swooped to the basket for a layup on the game's first play and it lit his fuse. When his 3-pointers started falling soon after, the Celtics knew they were in for a long night. Dallas led by as much as 28, though Boston fought back a bit in the fourth quarter.
When Rondo checked out with 1:21 remaining, the fans cheered again, a little more quietly than before. While they spent the night celebrating his career here, it was also a reminder of what's no longer theirs. And Rondo produced the sort of effort that made fans want him to be the face of the franchise through this current rebuild.
Rondo offered positive thoughts about Boston's future, but his focus now is on winning another championship.
Asked whether he was surprised by Rondo's big night, former teammate Jared Sullinger offered, "No, typical Rondo. He played against the Celtics for the first time without wearing the Celtics on his chest and he was out there to seek and destroy."
The folks in Dallas can start a highlight reel of their own now. They might need it down the road.