Commentary

Celtics rally to Rondo's cause

Teammates work overtime to help injured PG ramp up his comeback quest

Updated: December 20, 2013, 7:41 PM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

In our mind, Rajon Rondo donned the Bill Lumbergh costume (suspenders, glasses, coffee mug) last Friday and wandered around the Boston Celtics' locker room telling teammates, "I'm gonna need you to go ahead come in tomorrow, so if you could be here around 9 that would be great, mmmkay ... Oh, and I almost forgot, I'm also gonna need you to go ahead and come in on Sunday too, 'kay?"

Fortunately for Rondo, his teammates have been more than happy to oblige on some extended hours at their own office space, all with the goal of helping the All-Star point guard work through the final stages of ACL rehab.

After Rondo was cleared to resume full-contact practice activities last week, Boston extended its pair of weekend practices despite having played four games in six days before that break. On Friday, a handful of teammates stayed late after practice for a half-hour 5-on-5 scrimmage aimed almost exclusively at helping Rondo test his knee in game-like conditions.

[+] EnlargeRajon Rondo, Kelly Olynyk
AP Photo/Michael DwyerRajon Rondo is in the process of preparing for game action, but the Celtics don't want to rush his return.

There's a misconception about Boston's ability to ramp Rondo back up. Once he was cleared to return to practice last week, some assumed that the team would need only a couple weeks of practice time to get him game-ready. If only it were that easy.

In the 52 days since the start of the 2013-14 regular season, the Celtics have held 16 practices, the majority of which saw about as much activity as your typical high school gym class. Due to a game-heavy schedule, particularly in October, the Celtics often did little more than watch film and go through light shooting drills during off-day sessions.

First-year coach Brad Stevens operates with a philosophy that prefers shorter practices, with the sessions often structured to preserve his players over the course of an 82-game season. As Stevens has noted, he couldn't run his players ragged even if he wanted to because of the demands of the NBA schedule.

The Celtics had games on Monday and Wednesday this week, which limited how much Rondo's teammates could help him those days. The team went light between games on Tuesday, then took Thursday off. Friday saw the Celtics engage in a typical 75-minute session, but it featured limited live action. Rondo herded some teammates after the session for the 5-on-5 scrimmage.

Rondo joined with Keith Bogans, Gerald Wallace, Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger to work against Phil Pressey, Courtney Lee, MarShon Brooks, Kris Humphries and assistant coach Walter McCarty. Assistant coaches Jay Larranaga and Jamie Young served as refs.

NBA players are creatures of routine. And, like the rest of the working world, when there's a chance for downtime, they embrace it. The fact that much of the roster, including guys like Sullinger -- a starter logging 27 minutes per night -- was willing to dive into the post-practice scrimmage shows just how eager the team is to help Rondo get to the point where he's physically and mentally ready to return to game action.

"I'm biased, so I think he looks good," said Sullinger. "I'm just glad to see him back out there after all the tough times he had with the knee surgery and just trying to fight back and with rehab. It's just good to see him out there. I think the main reason why I stepped out there was to try to build his confidence and his conditioning back. So that when he is back on the court, he's back to 100 percent."

With a goal of mimicking game action, the Celtics pledged not to take it easy on Rondo. He fell to the court at times and always bounced right back up. Said Sullinger: "I think it's good that he experienced those bumps, he fell on the floor. He did a couple crossovers, just to feel out his knee and make sure to break that mental [hurdle] that if you fall, you can get back up. I think that was real helpful, just playing today."

The experience won't help only Rondo. For new faces like Olynyk, it's a chance to get used to playing with Rondo (the rookie fumbled after a little dish in the paint at one point during the session). Veteran teammates know that you have to stay alert because of Rondo's ability to deliver the ball in tough spots.

But the primary motive of Friday's post-practice session is obvious: Get Rondo back on the floor as quickly as possible. The Celtics are 12-15 overall and, while they still sit atop the Atlantic Division, there's hope that they can take even more steps in their early-season development with the return of an All-Star point guard.

Despite recent strides, the Celtics rank 23rd in offensive rating and could use Rondo's quarterbacking skills to bring more consistency to that end of the court. Boston is 30th in assist-to-turnover ratio and 25th in turnover percentage, both of which will be eased by Rondo's return. Boston is 22nd in pace, and the team ought to be looking to run more when Rondo is back.

Stevens has stressed that the decision of when Rondo will return to game action lies with the player. The team has taken it slow with Rondo to this point and will not rush him back. And with some notable players around the league going back on the shelf -- whether those maladies are related to their previous injury or not -- Boston won't skip any steps in bringing Rondo back.

Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has noted that Rondo still needs to strengthen his right quad. The team has continually stressed that Rondo is unlikely to be back until at least January, when the Celtics will take it week by week to gauge his progress.

Rondo looks good in the brief scrimmage glimpses open to reporters, but he needs more reps to shed rust and build confidence. His teammates are stepping up to help him find that practice time.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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