BOSTON (CBS) – Friday night was more than just a return for Rajon Rondo. It was also about the point guard receiving a sacred honor.
Boston’s long-time point guard made his season debut against the Los Angeles Lakers after missing the Celtics’ past 84 games, dating back to January 2013.
After looking rusty in his first five minute stint on the floor, Rondo looked sharp in the second quarter, scoring eight consecutive points for the Celtics in the frame on a collection of layups, floaters and even a postup.
A few trademark Rondo assists followed in the second half, as number 9 finished the night with a productive line; eight points, four assists, two rebounds, two steals and a turnover over 19 minutes of action, in what could be characterized as an uneven but solid performance for a guy who hadn’t played an NBA game in nearly a year.
It wasn’t all sunshine and roses for the Celtics against the Lakers though, as the hosts blew an eight-point lead over the final three minutes of the contest. Rondo had a chance to hit a 3-pointer in the closing seconds to send the game to overtime, but it was off the mark.
Instead, the Lakers finished the game on an 11-0 run, stole a 107-104 and handed Boston its’ 13th loss over the past 15 games.
For a team in an awful rut, the Celtics’ locker room remained relatively upbeat after the game, knowing the return of their All-Star point guard overshadowed a tough finish.
“I felt pretty good,” Rondo said after the game. “When I got back in the second quarter I got pretty winded, but that was expected. Other than that, I didn’t feel like I was limited to anything tonight. I missed my first two shots and got on the post and got comfortable and went from there.”
Brad Stevens agreed with his point guard’s assessment.
“I thought he was great. Obviously he’s going to feel – we’ll know more [Saturday] about how he feels – but I thought he looked pretty good out there and he was obviously really rusty in the first quarter, but that was to be expected. And then, you know, he got that run in the second quarter and did a lot there, and I thought he made a lot of plays down the stretch. Just came up a little bit short, but I was glad he had the ball.”
Rondo’s play on the floor wasn’t the only hot topic after the game. In what came as a surprise to the longest-tenured Celtic before the game, the team introduced Rondo as Boston’s new captain during the starting lineup introductions.
“I never told him,” Stevens said of giving Rondo the captain designation. “I don’t think it’s a – I mean, maybe it’s something I should have done but I think it’s something you earn through your effort, through your leadership, through your involvement in the community, and all of those things. So, yeah, he earned his captaincy; he didn’t need to be named it by me. That was my thought process.”
Rondo is now the 15th captain in Celtics history, following in the footsteps of Paul Pierce, who had held the designation over the previous 13 seasons. Celtics legends like Larry Bird, Bill Russell, John Havlicek, and Bob Cousy have also held the honor over the past 64 years.
At first, the captain announcement caught Rondo a little bit off guard.
“It really didn’t hit me at first. I was just trying to lock in,” Rondo explained “I just know that I was the last one that was going to be called so I went through the huddle. But after I came back, a couple guys told me, ‘Congrats on being named Captain.’ So I didn’t have a lot of time to take it in; I just wanted to get out there and play to the best of my ability.”
Once he was able to soak it in though, there was no question how much the new captaincy meant to the point guard.
“I’m just definitely honored, following Paul Pierce who was our last captain, and he held the seat for a long time. And so, it’s definitely something I’m very proud of. I think I’ve earned it, but at the end of the day, you know, it’s not just me as a leader; it’s honestly a lot of guys who lead this team,” Rondo said.
With the keys to the Celtics car officially handed over to the point guard, the team’s expectations may begin to shift.
“I expect to win every night, I compete. I think we have a lot of guys on the team that compete the same way I do. We’re going to be great,” Rondo said.
The challenge will be especially tough early on though with Rondo dealing with a minutes restriction.
“The minute deal makes it really tough,” Stevens acknowledged, “Because I want to make sure I get him in at the appropriate times, but it’s five minutes at the start (of each half), five minutes at the end, there’s 14 minutes in between that he had to sit and I didn’t love that. So we’re going to have to figure out how best to manage those minutes going forward if there continues to be a minute restriction.”
Despite the long rest, Rondo believes the spread out minutes are the best option for him.
“Coach and I talked about my minutes, how we were going to spread it out, you know, five minutes a quarter. I think that was the best way to do it. Even though I sat for a while I tried to stay ready mentally, pay attention to the game, the flow of the game,” Rondo said.
As he slowly starts to build up his stamina in the coming weeks, it’s now up to the new Celtics’ captain to lead Boston through a tough transition phase. With so many moving parts on the roster, the road will be rocky, but it’s clear Rondo has the full support of his head coach behind him.