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Tuesday, January 14, 2014
Celtics ready for Rajon Rondo

By Chris Forsberg
ESPNBoston.com

WALTHAM, Mass. -- A seasoned veteran gave Jared Sullinger some simple advice last season: Keep your hands up when Rajon Rondo has the ball.

With Rondo off the court since tearing his ACL in January 2013 -- or roughly 30,672,000 seconds using Rondo's recently unveiled cryptic time-display system -- Sullinger could be excused for forgetting the tip. During skeleton offensive work during Tuesday's practice session, Sullinger nearly ate some leather when Rondo unexpectedly zipped a pass his way.

Rajon Rondo
With the Celtics owning the league's worst assist-to-turnover ratio, Rajon Rondo's return should provide a needed boost.

"He's a special basketball player to get mentally prepared for," said Sullinger, who later added, "It kind of blew my mind because I didn't think he was going to pass it to me. … It was just kind of shocking that he threw it to me the way he did."

While Sullinger and his teammates played coy on Tuesday, and Rondo declined to chat about his Monday night tweet that hinted at a Friday return against the Los Angeles Lakers, the Celtics are readying for his impending presence. Sullinger is making sure his hands are up.

Rondo almost certainly will be an immediate help for the stumbling Celtics, losers of nine straight and 12 of 13, even as he shakes the rust from a yearlong absence. Boston ranks 24th in offensive rating, has the worst assist-to-turnover ratio in the league and is 24th in turnover percentage. The return of their floor general should provide the Celtics a needed offensive jolt.

The one challenge in Rondo's return is that it will alter a rotation that's been pretty firm for most of the season. Oh sure, first-year coach Brad Stevens has tinkered with lineups and rookies have seen some fluctuation in playing time, but Stevens has leaned on a 10-man core (recently swapping out Courtney Lee for Jerryd Bayless). Rondo will further crowd the backcourt, but the positives of his presence should far outweigh the negatives.

Even the guy who could be most affected by Rondo's return, Jordan Crawford, seems downright excited by the stress Rondo can take off his own game.

Crawford, who thrived as the team's starting point guard early in the season, earning the Eastern Conference's player of the week honor in early December, has struggled throughout Boston's current losing streak. During eight games in January, Crawford is averaging 14.3 points per game, but his shooting percentages have plummeted (35.6 percent this month; 20.7 beyond the 3-point arc).

Acquired by the Celtics at February's trade deadline last season, Crawford has never played alongside Rondo and admitted he's excited for that opportunity.

"To go in every game and try to create for yourself, it gets tough," Crawford said of his recent slump while running the first-team offense. "To get easier shots, that's definitely going to help me and help the team. I'm excited to play with him. … It's good to have another playmaker on the floor; he makes it easy on everybody."

Crawford and Rondo actually intersected many moons ago. Crawford's older brother, Joe, was a college teammate of Rondo at Kentucky and came out in the same recruiting class. Crawford said he's been watching Rondo for a long time and is eager to share the floor with him.

"It was good to show what I could do for the time that I got [as a starter], but I just want to stay consistent and, Rondo coming back, it's a big player that we need," Crawford said. "We need the wisdom that he's got, the leadership."

Crawford, who has averaged 30.7 minutes per game this season, will be competing for minutes now. Crawford and newly acquired Bayless are in line to share reserve backcourt minutes, both with combo-guard potential (though Bayless is a better ball-handler and Crawford primarily will return to his more natural shooting guard role).

The Celtics have been prone to lulls in play and Sullinger believes that Rondo will help eliminate those with his playmaking abilities. Boston has yearned to be a more consistent 48-minute team.

But the Celtics also understand that Rondo is no savior, particularly as he works his way back into game shape. He might not be the Rondo they know right out of the gates.

"We can't put too much on Rondo," Sullinger said. "When he comes back, we can't put a lot of pressure on him, just because he's going to be battling through mental things, he's going to be battling through fatigue.

"It's going to be tough for him. We know if we put too much pressure on him, he's going to put a lot of pressure on himself because that's the competitor he is. And we just want to make it as comfortable as possible for him to play. Hopefully he gets comfortable and goes back to his old ways."

As the Celtics drop in the standings and increase their chances at a top pick in June's draft, some fans aren't really looking forward to Rondo's return, fearing that his presence might help Boston overachieve again.

Neither Stevens nor Rondo's teammates seemed concerned about that. They want to win games again, snap this losing streak and build toward the future.

Their biggest concern is making sure their hands are up when Rondo has the ball.