Commentary

Captain Comeback: Rondo returns

Updated: January 18, 2014, 1:49 AM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- Rajon Rondo was so focused on the fact he was about to play his first game in nearly a year, the words spoken by Boston Celtics public address announcer Eddie Palladino during lineup introductions didn't even register with him.

And at the other guard, 6-1 from Kentucky, the captain, No. 9, Rajon Rondo.

Captain? Rondo's teammates began congratulating him on becoming only the 15th captain in Celtics history, but Rondo was unaware of the honor.

[+] EnlargeRajon Rondo
Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty ImagesOther than missing a potential tying 3-pointer in the closing seconds, Rajon Rondo had an encouraging return to the court.

"It really didn't hit me at first," Rondo said. "I was just trying to lock in. I knew I was the last one that was going to be called so I went through the huddle. But after I came back, a couple guys told me, 'Congrats on being named captain.' I didn't have a lot of time to take it in. I just wanted to go out there and play to the best of my ability."

Making his 2013-14 season debut and appearing in his first game since Jan. 25, 2013, Rondo displayed the expected rust and some familiar tantalizing glimpses all while scoring eight points on 4-of-9 shooting with four assists, two rebounds, two steals, and a turnover in 19 minutes, 25 seconds of floor time during Boston's 107-104 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers at TD Garden.

Rondo couldn't rescue the Celtics as the Lakers made a furious late-game rally, hitting a string of three 3-pointers to erase an eight-point deficit and surge ahead with 69 seconds to play. Rondo's 3-pointer from the left wing with a chance to tie the score in the final moments clanged off the rim as the Lakers spoiled his return.

The team will wait to see how Rondo's right knee responds to Friday's activity, but Rondo said he was encouraged by his first trip back on the court.

"I felt pretty good," he said. "When I got back in the second quarter, I got pretty winded, but that was expected. Other than that, I didn't feel like I was limited to anything tonight. I missed my first two shots and got to the post, got comfortable, and went from there."

After a rust-filled five-minute stint to start the first quarter, Rondo bounced back by scoring all eight of his points in a dazzling second quarter. He went classic for his first bucket of the season, coming off a Kelly Olynyk screen on the left block, Rondo did his familiar fake-behind-the-back deke in the paint to create enough space to kiss a layup off the glass over Pau Gasol with 5:43 to play in the second quarter.

A turnover left him running the floor behind fullback Jared Sullinger and Rondo accelerated into the paint for an uncontested layup. Then it was off to the post, where Rondo muscled his way to a couple of layups against Kendall Marshall, the second of which was a nifty spinning scoop move in which he showed no signs of lingering issues with his right knee. Rondo's efforts helped Boston open as much as a 13-point lead in the first half.

The hardest part, though, for Rondo was simply navigating the lulls between his court time. The Celtics were committed to playing him in five-minute bursts each quarter, but as coach Brad Stevens lamented, that meant 14 minutes between shifts for him to start and finish each half.

"The minute deal makes it really tough, because I want to make sure I get him in at the appropriate times," Stevens said. "But it's five minutes at the start (of the half), five minutes at the end, there's 14 minutes in between that he had to sit and I didn't love that. So we're going to have to figure out how best to manage those minutes going forward if there continues to be a minute restriction."

Added Rondo: "Hopefully this [minute restriction] won't be too long. It's my first game in a while. ... I just have to stop looking at the clock and just play."

Stevens liked what he saw overall.

"I thought [Rondo] was great," he said. "Obviously, we'll know more tomorrow about how he feels, but I thought he looked pretty good out there and he was obviously really rusty in the first quarter, but that was to be expected. And then he got that run in the second quarter and did a lot there, and I thought he made a lot of plays down the stretch. Just came up a little bit short, but I was glad he had the ball."

[+] EnlargeRajon Rondo
David Butler II/USA TODAY SportsPerhaps the best part of Rondo's comeback? He'll eclipse 20 minutes of playing time in the future.

Down three with 9.4 seconds to play, the Celtics pushed the ball up the court and an Olynyk screen on Marshall forced Gasol to switch onto Rondo. The point guard stepped back behind the 3-point line with space, but it found the side of the rim and the Lakers hung on.

Reflecting on being named captain before the game, Rondo accepted the leadership role.

"I'm just definitely honored," he said. "Following Paul Pierce, who was our last captain and he held the seat for a long time. It's definitely something I'm very proud of. I think I've earned it, but at the end of the day, it's not just me as a leader. Honestly, it's a lot of guys who lead this team."

Stevens, who said earlier this season he preferred not to elect a captain, suggested he changed his mind after Rondo earned the status with the way he led even while unable to be on the floor this season.

"I never told him," Stevens said of the introduction ambush. "Maybe it's something I should have done, but I think it's something you earn through your effort, through your leadership, through your involvement in the community, and all of those things. He earned his captaincy; he didn't need to be named it by me. That was my thought process."

As for picking Friday as the day of his return, Rondo said he decided during the team's trip out west earlier this month that he was nearing a return. During Monday's loss to the Toronto Raptors in Boston, while working out in the back with strength coach Bryan Doo, the pair concocted the plan to tweet a hint about a potential Friday return.

That ended up being "29,233,380 secs," which represented the 338-day duration between his surgery on Feb. 13, 2013 and his return on Friday.

"B-Doo and I were trying to figure out what was the best way to put it out there," Rondo said. "It took maybe 10 or 15 minutes. I was trying to decide if I was going to do the seconds, minutes, days, I didn't know. But I went with seconds, but I kinda messed up on the Tweet because I was just going to put the number and not the seconds."

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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