CHICAGO — Rajon Rondo gave his strongest indication yet Thursday evening that he is close to returning to the Celtics, perhaps within a few weeks.
Before the Celtics faced the Bulls and following a pregame workout, Rondo said he is open to a rehabilitation stint with Maine of the NBA Development League and is getting “pretty close” after missing nearly a year with a torn right anterior cruciate ligament.
“I’m better than last week when I talked to you guys,” he said, referring to his media session Dec. 22. “I’m still getting my endurance but I’m getting pretty close, feeling good, feeling better.”
Rondo, who has traveled with the team and was cleared to practice three weeks ago, has been working out arduously to approach game shape, saying he does not want to return prematurely and suffer a setback.
“I don’t want to go out there and get fatigued and cause another injury,” he said. “I want to make sure I’m ready to go and I’m in shape.”
Celtics coach Brad Stevens told the Globe on Monday that the organization had discussed sending Rondo to Maine for game action and practice time. Rondo had been mum about the possibility until Thursday. If Rondo does play with the Red Claws, it would likely be on the road. After Sunday, Maine hits the road for five games before returning to Portland on Jan. 18.
“That’s an idea, definitely,” Rondo said. “That’s more game-like speed with our schedule, the Celtics, we don’t get a chance to play a lot of pickup, so that might be a possibility. You just never know, I might just pop up and play. You guys won’t get the memo. You just have to catch me on YouTube or something. Each week I’m getting better so I just want to give it a test when I have a chance.”
When asked if he was truly open to playing in the D-League, Rondo said: “That’s what it’s for. I’ll probably be the first [NBA player] to [use it as rehab] but it doesn’t make a difference. I want to make sure I’m healthy and I handle it the right way. I don’t want my first time to come back out game-like to be the first time with the Celtics. I haven’t had a preseason. I haven’t had a training camp. Right now, this is my training camp.”
Rondo has spoken with Atlanta’s Lou Williams, who underwent ACL surgery a week before Rondo did in February and returned to action in mid-November.
“Basically what stuck out to me was he said there’s going to be some good days and bad days,” Rondo said. “Especially for the first 18 months of the recovery. Lou Williams is out there with no brace. He’s playing well. It’s a matter of getting his rhythm back.”
The Celtics entered Thursday in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race despite a 13-18 record. Rondo said the record will have nothing to do with the timing of his return.
“I’m pretty motivated regardless of our team’s record,” he said. “I told myself before the season I wasn’t going to base it off our record. It’s based off how I feel.
“We could be 2-30 right now, if I’m able to come back and play I want to play. I love the game. I’ve been away for a long time, and when I feel ready to play, I’m going to play.”
Rondo has not played in an NBA game since tearing the ACL last Jan. 25 at Atlanta.
“It’s frustrating, it’s rough,” he said. “It’s a lot of things that you go through but it’s how you handle it. I’m going through a lot of adversity but I’m staying positive and I have a lot of supportive people around me.”
A key assist
Ron Adams, in his first season as a Celtics assistant, forged a close relationship with Stevens when Stevens was at Butler University and Adams was on Tom Thibodeau’s staff with the Bulls. Adams was not re-signed by Chicago last summer.
Thibodeau talked before Thursday’s game about how Adams can help Stevens’s development as an NBA coach.
“He’s a great assistant; he’s a great coach, period,” Thibodeau said. “I think Brad has really studied the pro game for a long time. He came by a few times to visit with Ron when Ron was here.
“Obviously his record speaks for itself at this level and I think he’s done a terrific job with the Celtics.
“The way he approaches things, he’s very strong on both sides of the ball. I think he understands leadership. He understands communication. He understands how to teach and that’s what coaching is.”
Stevens has emphasized the importance of Adams’s impact on his learning and development.
“He’s been a longtime friend of mine and he’s been great,” Stevens said. “When I hired him, he kind of characterized himself as my editor and I thought that was a good phrase and I found it to be true.
“It’s been great to have him around. He’s one of those guys in coaching that he’s been doing it a long time. He’s got so many experiences and he’s only doing this to help us all grow, both staff and players.”