Their floor general was back in fourth-quarter form, dominant and dynamic, directing teammates and choreographing the action when it mattered most.
Yes, after much adieu, Rajon Rondo indeed looked like his old self Sunday, like the player the Celtics had missed so much and like the one they want to keep.
Playing in his seventh game this season after missing nearly a year following a knee injury, the point guard had 19 points and 10 assists to lead the Celtics to a 96-89 win over the Orlando Magic at TD Garden.
“It’s just one game,” said a tempered Rondo, who hit 9 of 11 shots and added 6 rebounds and 3 steals in nearly 27 minutes.
“I made a lot of my shots. But I feel more comfortable around the basket. A lot of my flip shots went in today. But, like I said, I take it one day at a time.”
It was the only NBA game on Super Bowl Sunday, and it lacked much intrigue, as the teams had two of the three worst records in the league and had lost 35 of their last 40 games combined coming in.
But the Celtics needed a win, and Rondo helped deliver it. He had six of his assists in the fourth quarter, when the Celtics (16-33) fought off the Magic to snap a four-game losing streak and earn just their fourth win in 22 games.
The Magic (13-36) have lost 17 of 19, and they’ve also lost 11 straight road games. They were led by 18 points from Arron Afflalo.
And for the first time this season, the Celtics looked calm even though it was late in the game with the score tight.
“You just feel like you’re really under control, the way that he was playing late,” coach Brad Stevens said of Rondo.
It showed on the court.
The Celtics led by as many as 12 points, but the Magic cut their deficit to 86-84 with 2:30 left in the fourth quarter on a layup by former Celtic Glen Davis.
Rondo answered with a short jumper from the right elbow, starting a 6-0 run that was capped by a Brandon Bass jumper off a feed from Rondo.
The Celtics were able to hang on from there, especially after Rondo came up with a key strip with 16.1 seconds left.
“The energy that he gave us was amazing,” said guard Avery Bradley, who scored 17 points in his first game back after a five-game absence because of a sprained ankle.
“He was getting everybody involved. He was talking to everybody on defense. He was getting us together throughout the whole game, so we knew what we wanted to do on the offensive end. It was just amazing. I love playing with him and I’m pretty sure everybody else does, as well.”
Rondo also became the first Celtic to have at least 19 points, 10 assists, and shoot at least 80 percent from the field since Sherman Douglas in 1993, according to statistician Dick Lipe.
Rondo didn’t play in the Celtics’ 1-point loss last Wednesday to Philadelphia, and he credited having four days of rest entering Sunday. But he acknowledged that for the first time in a while, it felt like he had control down the stretch. He noted, though, that his job was easier because his team made shots, shooting 50 percent.
“We didn’t stop pushing the pace, even though we had the lead,” Rondo said. “We finally finished a game strong. They made a run at it, but at the end of the day, we finally got some stops when we needed to make some plays.”
But it can’t be understated how comfortable the Celtics looked in that final quarter. They have blown double-digit leads and lost in the final minutes, but Sunday felt different.
“Very comfortable,” said Bass, who had 19 points and nine rebounds. “Rondo is a coach on the floor and he’s leading us. It’s felt great.”
Stevens, who said this game was “the most comfortable” that Rondo has looked since he returned, was also at ease, as he knew the game was in good hands.
“Well, I think we execute a little crisper,” Stevens said when asked about increased ball movement with Rondo on the floor. “I think that obviously the ball is in one person’s hands a little bit longer, but that’s because he’s kind of your playmaker and leader and person who can create for himself and others.”
Stevens added, “But it does give you a sense of comfort going into those final few minutes that you’ve got a person directing for you.”
The four-time All-Star struggled with foul trouble but still finished with his highest point total this season.
One of the knocks against Rondo has been his shooting, and he had shot poorly entering the game, hitting just 13 of his last 52 attempts in his last five games prior to Sunday.
But with his shots around the rim, including a running, one-handed hook shot, and some short jumpers, Rondo was able to find a rhythm.
“He’s a very, very good shooter who has put in more time to be a good shooter; better than his statistics in the past would say,” Stevens said. “And so I feel really good about him pulling up and making those shots.”
Jared Sullinger had a game-high 21 points on 10-for-15 shooting with 12 rebounds, his ninth double-double in the last 18 games.
Sullinger noted, though, that the team is finally starting to adjust to having the pass-first Rondo at point guard, whereas the shoot-first Jordan Crawford had filled that role before being traded to Golden State.
“It’s kind of hard to get used to that, it takes time, so you play those games,” Sullinger said. “There are times when we look sloppy, and there are times that we looked great. As a team, I think we’re finally on the same page.”
It resulted in a win, albeit against a terrible team, but the Celtics will take it and hope there’s many more to follow.