TORONTO -- Rajon Rondo can still only watch. His Boston Celtics opened their season Wednesday and he sat on the sideline between the coaches and active players. Still recovering from February's ACL surgery, Rondo saw the Celtics start Avery Bradley at point guard, Jeff Green at shooting guard and rookie Vitor Faverani at center. He saw Gerald Wallace play 40 minutes. He saw Jordan Crawford running the offense off the bench.
Rondo remained engaged on every possession as the Toronto Raptors outscored his teammates, 28-11, in the second quarter. He encouraged them as they came back to make a game of it. When he had a binder in his hands, he looked like he was another assistant coach.
"It's all I can be," Rondo said after the 93-87 loss. "It's all I can be right now."
The speculation started as soon as the Celtics sent Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn and Doc Rivers, the only head coach Rondo's known as a pro, left to chase a championship in Los Angeles. Would Rondo be the next to go? How would the brilliant, stubborn point guard mesh with another coach?
Early indications are positive. Brad Stevens declared himself Rondo's biggest fan at his introductory press conference, then Rondo said he and his new coach were "best friends" at media day. Celtics president Danny Ainge told reporters last week that Rondo was "absolutely" the centerpiece of his rebuilding process. While he can't yet contribute on the court and no return date has been specified -- Rondo said he was "around 87 percent, give or take, depending on how my day goes" after Boston's preseason finale last week -- he appears to be all in.
"I know it's hurting him not being out there, but he's always talking to us, giving us everything he has from the bench perspective," Celtics rookie point guard Phil Pressey said. "Whatever he sees, he says. He knows some of the plays that they're calling, so he calls them out before they even call ‘em. That clipboard, he's writing stuff down all the time."
Rondo never was shy about suggesting strategies to Rivers and there was never a reason to think that'd change with Stevens. This is a guy who was tasked with explaining the defensive gameplan to his high school teammates in the lobby when the coach had to wash their uniforms, according to a Sports Illustrated feature. Earlier this month, he said he might want to coach someday. While Rondo keeps a low public profile, his voice is heard in the arena and the practice facility.
"He's a leader by nature, so that's what he's going to do every chance he gets," Boston veteran swingman Keith Bogans said.
Stevens started building his relationship with Rondo the day he took the job. Stories trickled out about the coach visiting Rondo's camp in Kentucky, then keeping in contact via daily text messages, YouTube links and book recommendations. Stevens has been open about some things being new to him as he makes his adjustment from the college game to the NBA. As he learns the league, he'll lean on his staff, featuring revered assistant Ron Adams, but there's no one in the locker room more important to his success than Rondo.
"Obviously it's his first year doing this type of season in the NBA game but he's open to coach Ron's advice and other coaches on the staff's advice," Rondo said. "And he asks me for advice as well."
You can't watch these Celtics without imagining what they'll look like once Rondo is back. This is especially the case when they score two field goals in a quarter, like they did in the second in Toronto. Of course, Stevens would much rather have a healthy Rondo running his offense and making the game easier for everyone, but he sees the bright side in having an extra assistant for now.
"I think this will be really good for him," Stevens said. "It's kind of like when you redshirt somebody in college and they have to watch and learn and see it from a different vantage point, so whenever he comes back he's going to be better for it. It doesn't feel like it now for him or us but if our team can keep fighting like they did tonight, that's okay. That's okay and when he gets back, we'll be better."