Rajon Rondo rusty but healthy in return to action

Jared Wickerham

The Boston Celtics lost their first game with their All-Star point guard this year.

Rajon Rondo returned to the court Friday night, scoring eight points, dishing out four assists and shooting 4-9 from the field in the Boston Celtics' 107-104 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.

More importantly for the Celtics, Rondo finished the game healthy, and there have been no reports of swelling or anything amiss with his recovery from the torn ACL he suffered last season. The Celtics have fallen far behind even the morass of the Eastern Conference playoff picture at 14-27, so Rondo is not being relied on to carry them to the playoffs.

Instead, Friday night - and the rest of the season - will be about Rondo and head coach Brad Stevens. Rondo had one turnover in the game and the Celtics played well in the five-minute stretches in which he was on the court. On his first basket of the year, he looked like his old self, faking a behind-the-back pass and sinking a fallaway layup.

Stevens is a big departure from the only NBA head coach Rondo has ever known, Doc Rivers. Whereas Rivers is a solid in-game strategist, he draws most of his coaching accolades from his intensity and fierce loyalty to his players. Stevens has been consistently on-message this year that his job is to find what players are successful at, and put them in positions to do whatever that is more often.

Stevens is even-keeled, at least so far; the playoffs would be a true test -- and it was assumed at first that the Celtics would try to trade Rondo to tank even more than they already are, and accumulate young players/assets. Most figured it didn't matter how the pair fit together, because they would never have to.

It's since become clear that the 27-year-old Rondo is the centerpiece of the Celtics' future. He's a notoriously enigmatic personality, but he and Stevens appear to be getting along so far; there's talk of a potential Connect Four showdown, which really should be broadcast in Sunday night primetime on NBA TV.

That's why Friday night was so important, and what the rest of the season has in store for Celtics fans. As Rondo builds to where he's playing 30 minutes per game, gets used to the idea that he's not on one of the league's  best teams for the first time since he was a rookie, and integrates into Stevens' system, the team's future will take shape.

By the end of Friday night's game, Rondo had shaken off some rust. He was threading passes between multiple defenders, using his long arms on defense and moving laterally without hindrance. Once he's back, the questions will begin to mount in either direction: will Rondo make the Celtics too good to tank and score a potential franchise player in the draft, or will Rondo without Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett not be as good as we remember?

Either way, the NBA finally has one of its marquee players back. With Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Kobe Bryant, Eric Bledsoe and others suffering long-term injuries, this is good news all NBA fans were waiting for.

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