WALTHAM — Near the end of Celtics practice Thursday, players engaged in a drill designed to sharpen their transition game.
Two players would sprint upcourt and try to score against a defender — a classic two-on-one situation — and then, without skipping a beat, the situation would be repeated going the other way.
The drill was fast-paced and full of sprinting, and coach Brad Stevens kept encouraging his players to push the tempo even more.
When the drill ended, point guard Rajon Rondo was, to quote Stevens, "huffing and puffing," a sign that Rondo still isn't in peak condition after sitting out for 11 months.
After the Celtics' loss Sunday to the Indiana Pacers, Rondo told reporters his conditioning is his biggest remaining hurdle before he returns to the court for the first time since having knee surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in February.
"I would agree with his assessment," Stevens said. "But that's not unusual when you haven't played in  months."
The question, Stevens said, is, "How do you get to be game-conditioned without a lot of game opportunity or without a lot of practice opportunity, and real game-like scenarios?"
So the Celtics, who face the Cleveland Cavaliers Saturday at TD Garden, tried that drill at the end of practice, though they also used it because players were off for three days during the Christmas break and such a drill would be good for shaking off the rust.
But Stevens said he wouldn't tailor practices to Rondo so he can get in better shape.
"I think a lot of that's going to have to be on his own," Stevens said. "Again, that's not atypical. We can do a little bit more, but you can't wear your other guys down, because it's a long season for everybody."
Nice to be back
It's unusual for a team to have three days off in the middle of the season, and the Celtics were eager to get back on the court after their lengthy break.
"I think those three days kind of makes you lazy," Gerald Wallace said. "You go home. You eat a lot. You want to sit around. You're as far away from basketball as you can be.
"Coming back here . . . my main thing is I just wanted to go as hard as I could.''
Stevens spent the break with family, but he said the game was never far from his mind, especially with the Celtics on a three-game losing streak and coming off a 27-point loss to Indiana.
"The biggest thing for me was identifying what we need to work on and trying to get better in those areas that we can control," Stevens said. "Our defense slid a little bit in the last couple of games, but that's all relative, because you're only talking about a couple stops per game."
Stevens is careful about evaluating the losing streak, as two of the three losses came in games the Celtics were leading by double digits.
"It might be, hey, we played pretty well twice and didn't play well for stretches," Stevens said. "And that's probably the case. I didn't think our effort or our focus on the details was even close on Sunday to what it's been for the better part of the month. I don't have any complaints with that most of the time, but Sunday was not good."
Wallace said the Celtics had been looking ahead to their break.
"Usually, it's very, very rare that you get a break during Christmas," Wallace said. "And we're a young team, so I can pretty much see some of the guys kind of looking forward to it. Mostly, you only see that [during] the game before All-Star break."
That’s a wrap
Jared Sullinger's left hand was wrapped at practice, and he revealed that he has been dealing with pain for a month.
"It's been bothering me since the Charlotte game [Nov. 25)," said Sullinger, "so I just decided to finally wear something because there's a deep bone bruise and a couple sprained ligaments in my left hand, but I'll be all right."
Avery Bradley was wearing a wrap on his right thigh and sat out near the end of practice. Stevens said Bradley and Wallace bumped knees.
"It doesn't look like it's anything major," Stevens said.
Stars in their eyes
The latest round of All-Star balloting returns was announced Thursday, and Rondo remains sixth among Eastern Conference backcourt players with 111,335 votes.
Jeff Green was ninth among Eastern frontcourt players with 78,693 votes.
The top vote-getter for all players is Miami's LeBron James with 854,105.
Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant is second with 850,728 and the Lakers' Kobe Bryant is third with 723,031.