Of course this couldn’t be a happy ending for Rajon Rondo, who returned after a 357-day break to recover from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, because the Celtics maintained their usual form in the fourth quarter Friday night against the Lakers.
This Celtics team is light years from the team Rondo left when he was injured Jan. 25, 2013, with an entirely new roster and coach. Despite his presence, the Celtics found a way to blow another chance, while crystallizing the issues Rondo faces in the coming weeks.
The Celtics are beyond flawed and they proved it again in their 107-104 loss, when they were outscored, 11-0, to end the game and Rondo was rendered helpless after he entered the game for the final 4:53. The team he inherits lacks a go-to scorer, a quality shooter late in games, and a legitimate center.
Overshadowed by Rondo’s return is the fact Danny Ainge is busy tweaking the roster to fit his long-term standards, making the short term an afterthought. Named team captain by Brad Stevens moments before tip-off, Rondo now has the responsibility to improve and reshape his teammates.
He is their leader, an NBA champion, four-time All-Star, and franchise cornerstone. His contract expires following the 2014-15 season and how Rondo handles this responsibility the next several months could determine whether he stays in Boston on a maximum deal or wears another uniform with the Celtics netting draft picks and starting over at point guard.
This is more of a challenge than being the baby of the bunch on the 2008 championship team. He had mentors then. He had Kevin Garnett to keep him focused. He had Ray Allen burying 3-pointers with a sliver of space.
The team he returns to is painfully young and inexperienced, and more than a handful won’t be here for the long haul. Adding to the intrigue of his comeback is the fact the Celtics are in true lottery purgatory. They are tied with Utah for the league’s fourth-worst record — giving them a legitimate shot at one of college basketball’s premium prospects in the draft — but are just three games behind Charlotte for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
If Rondo gives the Celtics the expected spike, then they will be back in the playoff hunt.
“I expect to win every night I compete,” Rondo said. “I think we have a lot of guys on the team that compete the same way I do. We’re going to be great. We are still finding a rhythm as far as offensive sets to run in the fourth quarter, or even in the first quarter, so Brad and I continue to stay on the same page.
“We missed some shots late in the fourth quarter, but we can’t hang our hats on offense, you know we got to do it defensively and they made an 11-0 run. You know it starts with the point guard.”
Rondo immediately took responsibility for the loss and the Celtics’ scoreless skid for the final 3:12, but it’s going to take better efforts from each player and Stevens in the fourth quarter to improve dramatically this season.
Rondo’s effect on Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk, Avery Bradley, and Phil Pressey will be critical to the Celtics’ future, and how the team responds to fourth-quarter situations such as Friday should improve as Rondo gets more comfortable.
“It’s not a big deal,” he said of the leadership. “I’ve pretty much considered myself the captain or one of the leaders. It’s always been four or five voices, including Doc [Rivers] in the past, but I take full responsibility of what happens here as far as the team goes. As I said, this is nothing new, I was pretty much a born leader and accept the role fully.”
The next few months will be an interesting time for the future of the Celtics. Ainge has a month before the trade deadline to potentially move Kris Humphries, Gerald Wallace, Brandon Bass, or Jeff Green for more assets, so his assessment of Rondo could occur with a fluid roster around him. It seems Rondo understands his task, being the front man for a changing organization that desperately wants to return to prosperity.
We’ll see if Rondo can maintain his patience with a team that’s so wildly inconsistent. He tried going to Bradley in the fourth quarter but Bradley missed a couple of critical shots in the final two minutes. It will be a learning experience for Rondo because for the first time since his rookie season, he will be part of a team that is likely to lose on most nights, a far cry from the Big Three era.
“I have to build as a leader, not just talking but going out on the court and doing it,” he said. “Getting my work in, speaking up when need be. Positive criticism or negative at the same time. I’ve got to be willing to listen to my other teammates and my coaches.”