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Rondo keeping hopes alive

BOSTON -- The way Avery Bradley tells it, Boston Celtics captain Rajon Rondo was chatting about playoff chances with his teammates recently and, despite coming off the worst calendar month in team history, suggested that "anything is possible."

It almost assuredly didn't come out like his buddy Kevin Garnett's caps-locked "ANYTHING IS POSSIBLLLLLLLE!" after the 2008 Finals, but Rondo's sentiment is no less lofty.

After Sunday's win over the lottery-bound Orlando Magic, the Celtics sit 5 games out of the final playoff spot and own a mere 5.1 percent chance at making the playoffs, according to Hollinger's computerized playoff odds. For the guys inside the Celtics' locker room, that's just enough to go full Lloyd Christmas: "So you're telling me there's a chance!"

Call them disillusioned, but with Rondo back -- and looking more like his old self during Sunday's win -- these Celtics have talked themselves into the possibility that they could make an honest-to-goodness playoff charge.

"[Rondo] lets us know that anything is possible," said Bradley. "If we come out strong [in the second half of the season], we have a chance to break off a run and win eight games straight if we play harder than everybody else."

Is this true, captain?

"We have an easy month [of February] as far as scheduling wise," said Rondo. "I think we only play 11 games this month of February. A lot of winnable games, so I don't think we could use the excuse of beating ourselves anymore. I think we need to come out and execute and try to get some wins. We're not too far out of the playoffs. Keep hope alive."

Yep, Rondo is invoking Jesse Jackson in Boston's playoff quest. Listen, we all know Rondo's pretty good at numbers, he understands the long odds against his team. He also knows full well that he alone can't rescue a flawed team.

Rondo knows that the odds of a playoff spot this season are slimmer than him losing consecutive games of Connect Four, but it's still encouraging to see Boston's new leader trying to rally the troops and keep them playing hard at a time when mounting losses might have encouraged young guys to just go through the motions the rest of the way.

A week back, as his team was closing out a 2-15 January, first-year coach Brad Stevens was asked if he was familiar with Jim Mora's ubiquitous "Playoffs!?" rant.

Stevens smiled and deadpanned, "I am an Indianapolis guy."

Stevens admitted that "everybody is mathematically alive when you have 40 games left," but also cautioned that it was a unique year, one in which it's "pretty ridiculous" that Boston has even the miniscule chance it still owns despite a 16-33 record through 49 games.

Neither Stevens nor Rondo have to pour cold water on their teammates. The Celtics understand the reality of this season. The 2013-14 campaign won't be judged on wins and losses or remembered more fondly for a playoff appearance. Future-minded trades have already depleted the in-season roster and more personnel overhauls could loom before the Feb. 20 trade deadline.

That's why Stevens keeps his focus on the next game. Priority 1 lately has been to get this team fully healthy and the recent returns of Bradley and Jerryd Bayless, along with the rust-shaking from Rondo, have aided that cause. After Sunday's win, Stevens stressed a desire to get his team to play 48 consistent minutes as maddening lulls have played a big part in why Boston's record is as poor as it is.

Playoffs or not, the Celtics know they're building toward something over these final three months of the season.

"If you want to be a good team, we have to play hard the entire game," said Bradley. "We're learning and creating our identity and we're trying to become a Boston sports team and that's by playing hard the entire game. That's what we want to do, that's our focus. That's how I play. And I know that's how Rondo plays. We just need to get everybody to play like that."

Let's not overreact to Sunday's win, one over a team with the second-worst record in basketball that didn't have Jameer Nelson and still made things interesting late. This after the Celtics lost to a team (Philadelphia) with the third-worst record in basketball on a buzzer-beater on Wednesday.

Yes, the schedule isn't overly daunting this month (though there's a steady diet of Western Conference foes, including a four-game trip out west through the trade deadline). But, for a team that hasn't won consecutive games since mid-December, we probably know how this plays out. Rondo might help the Celtics steal a few more games, but a playoff run seems unlikely.

What remains most important is figuring out which players on the team will be here when the playoffs are a more obtainable goal. But playing hard and trying to win close games is important, too, for a young group. So if playoff dreams are the sort of carrot that can keep this team playing hard, then the Celtics should run with it.