BOSTON — One of Rajon Rondo's greatest strengths has been his perpetual poker face.
If there was a Hall of Fame for playing it cool, he would be inducted on the first ballot.
But what he's dealing with now may the greatest challenge to his ability to maintain a stone-faced facade in those combustible, nerve-wracking moments.
Rondo is inching closer towards a return to the court after suffering a torn right ACL injury almost 11 months to the day.
But the challenges he has to overcome before returning to action go beyond the knee functioning at a pre-torn ACL level.
The mental hurdle that all athletes with major injuries have to deal with in some manner, remains the biggest mystery left unsolved in Rondo's recovery process.
How will he respond when he's hit by say, Cleveland's Andrew Bynum or Houston's Dwight Howard while driving to the basket?
When he gets by players off the dribble - and you know it's going to happen - will he look to shoot more pull-up jumpers or will he try and finish around the basket and thus increase the likelihood of contact?
Will he go out of his way to avoid landing on the floor?
"The knee is fine," Rondo told reporters after Boston's 106-79 loss at Indiana on Sunday. "It's not about falls. That's part of my game. I'm going to fall. I fell before. I'm not afraid to hit the floor. It's a matter of just going up and down the court."
Rondo, who acknowledges that his conditioning needs a lot of work, is indeed saying all the right things that fall in line with a player whose return to playing is sooner rather than later.
But what he says now and what he actually experiences and tries to process on the fly in games, is another matter entirely.
BECOMING A 'BAD-ASS' REHAB PATIENT
Dr. Jim Brennan is a performance psychologist who has worked with the Villanova men's basketball team for nine seasons.
He says the mental approach athletes take once they resume playing, has to build off of how they mentally attacked their rehabilitation.
"All the things that made them a great competitor, those are the things they have to focus the same towards in their rehab," Dr. Brennan told CSNNE.com. "Whatever the standards are in the rehab, they have to feel like they are setting difficult goals. If they're a bad-ass athlete, be a bad-ass rehab patient."
Rondo's rehabilitation has involved long days and evenings with Bryan Doo, the Celtics' strength and conditioning coach.
He has traveled with the team, sitting on the sidelines during games home and away offering advice, tips and suggestions to both his teammates and the coaching staff.
There are daily text messages between Rondo, his teammates and the coaching staff, on a variety of topics.
"He's been great for me," Celtics guard Phil Pressey told CSNNE.com. "Look at him. He's one of the best point guards in the game. If a player like that wants to help you, I don't care if you're a rookie or a vet, you should listen. That's what I'm doing; listening and trying to use his tips to make me a better player."
But no matter what Rondo does now, there's nothing he can do that can truly simulate what he's paid to do.
"You can run all the sprints you want, get on the bike, but being out 10, 11 months without playing the game of basketball ... it's not easy to get back in shape by just doing those type of things," Rondo said.
Once he's comfortable enough to play in games, that will just open up another chapter in his rehab narrative.
"The first game back is pretty good because the expectations are so low," said Dr. Adam Naylor, a sports psychology consultant who oversees the mental conditioning services at Boston University. "And then the second and third, you start to feel some tweaks that you probably had before, but once you get injured you're really aware of your body. So then you start managing, being more cautious.
Naylor added, "It's really trying to navigate being tough but also how to be afraid. I think that's the art of being a great athlete. You're allowed to be afraid to be a great athlete, you just have to figure out how it fits into your macho side. That's incredibly tough when you're injured."
In recent months, the NBA has seen some of its best players suffer major injuries, return to the floor, only to suffer another injury to end their season.
Chicago's Derrick Rose suffered a torn meniscus in his right knee after 10 games this season. Team officials have said he will miss the remainder of this season although Rose told reporters earlier this month that he might return for the playoffs depending on how his body felt at that point in time.
This most recent injury for Rose comes after the former league MVP sat out all of the 2012-2013 season following a torn ACL injury in his left knee that ended his 2011-2012 campaign after 39 games.
Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant suffered a fracture of the lateral tibial plateau in his left knee last week which is expected to keep him out for at least six weeks. That injury came on the heels of him returning way ahead of schedule, from a ruptured Achilles Tendon suffered on April 12.
Having already endured major injuries and recovered from them, should bode well for Rose and Bryant.
While this is not the first time Rondo has missed games due to injury, it is his first significant one.
"Athletes who've successfully rehabbed a couple times, they do have a greater confidence for it," said Dr. Naylor. "There's a learning curve to being injured. I do believe to be a great athlete, you have to know how to rehab well. You don't see anyone going to the combine, here's their jump-shot, there's their 40-time, 'hey, do they rehab well?' But that's a really important piece to being a good athlete these days."
NBA veterans who have suffered significant leg and knee-related injuries warn players like Rondo to be as cautious as possible when deciding when to return.
Former Celtic Chauncey Billups suffered a torn Achilles tendon injury in February of 2012 which some thought might be career-ending.
He was back on the floor for the Los Angeles Clippers 10 months later.
"The main thing is to not put too much pressure on yourself to be who you was, right away when you get back," Billups told CSNNE.com. "That's hard to do, especially for a guy like Rondo who is young still and has a lot of playing to do."
Billups added, "for me, I'm 37. My career's almost over. I just want to be effective, be able to help. For him, he wants to come back and be dominant; be the guy, the point guard that he was and he will get there, absolutely. But he should give himself a little bit of time even when he gets back, to get back to that."
Memphis big man Zach Randolph returned to the floor just a couple months after suffering a torn MCL in January of 2012. Even though he put up decent numbers after the injury, he said it took him a while before he felt like "my old self" on the court.
"I wasn't right until the next year," Randolph told CSNNE.com. "It's an adjustment. Fans have to be patient. Rondo is going to get back to being Rondo. It might be this year, it might be the beginning of next year but he'll get back to it."
CLEARING THE FINAL HURDLE
For Rondo, this injury presents yet another challenge for a player who has thrived when faced with adversity.
Before the injury, Rondo was among a cluttered bunch of elite point guards who each could claim dibs in some fashion on being the game's best. But when it comes to getting the job done in the playoffs, Rondo stands head and shoulders above all of his point guard brethren.
"It's a matter of mental toughness," said one NBA scout. "And Rondo has more of that, than any point guard when the game matters. He's one of the few players - forget point guards, we're talking players - who have that in their basketball DNA."
And it is that mental toughness that will be tested more and more as he nears a return to playing in games.
Dr. Brennan, author of "The Art of Becoming Oneself," said injuries have a way of "re-writing the software" for athletes, even those who have shown a high degree of mental toughness prior to the injury.
"If you're really a mentally tough athlete and you're down (with an injury), how to reframe your thinking, how to accept the reality ... that is the launching point for you to become a tough guy again," Dr. Brennan said. "That is such a strong internal need in you, to need that. Now you have a way to express it again, doing things that are difficult and things that are complex and things that take discipline and tolerance of pain and discomfort, but feel like winning."
Dr. Brennan added, "The more athletes understand about what comprises that high performance level and they can feel like they can work at those things, a hand on the wheel so to speak, then they are taking a purposeful approach to it and it's a little bit more controlled. But once they start to feel like whatever they do, this is not working out, it starts getting more discouraging, you're never gonna make a tough situation better by lacking confidence."
During an interview to announce his multi-year shoe and apparel deal with Anta last month, Rondo mentioned his return from the Jan. 25 injury at Atlanta was contingent upon being both mentally and physically ready to play at a high level.
Gauging where he's at physically is easier to do. There are various exercises and running routines that he can participate in that will at the very least, give him a feel for where he's at conditioning-wise prior to playing in a game.
A recent 5-on-5 game after practice proved to be quite revealing as well.
"It felt good," Rondo said. "I got winded very quickly. We played two pick-up games. I was tired by the second one."
The true barometer for where he's at in terms of mental strength, won't be determined until he's back playing in games.
Randolph recalls the physical bumping he endured from his Memphis teammates prior to returning to the floor following his MCL injury.
"In practice, it's a different hit than in a game," Randolph told CSNNE.com. "Going against teammates, they're going to try and hit you but they ain't gonna try and hit you hard. You don't know how your body is going to take that until you get into a game, for real."
Billups echoed similar sentiments when discussing his return from a torn Achilles' tendon.
"And guys are going to test you too," Billups said. "They want to see if you're the same player, have you lost a step, are you tentative with some things you used to do without thinking ... all of that's going on. But you as a player, you have to be patient and understand it's not all going to come together or go the way you want it to, that first, or second or third game.
Billups added, "Just like you have to be patient during the rehab, you gotta have some patience with yourself and your game when you get back out there, too."
And that may be Rondo's greatest challenge once he starts playing again.
But you wouldn't know it by looking at him or hearing him speak.
After all, that's what you expect from a player with a Hall of Fame-worthy poker face.
BOSTON — One of Rajon Rondo's greatest strengths has been his perpetual poker face.