At the tail end of Sundays win over the Heat, long after Rajon Rondos torn ACL had been confirmed by Doris Burke, the Celtics point guard told Cedric Maxwell: Im coming back to play in two weeks.
And you know what? I kind of believed him. Despite all the logic in the world. Despite the fact that its literally impossible to bounce back from a torn ACL in two weeks' time. I saw that quote, and for a split second thought: Well . . . it is Rondo . . . so maybeeee . . . maybe?
Of course that's ridiculous. And either way, it doesnt matter now. At this very moment, nothing in the basketball world seems to matter. Rondos gone. Out for the season. With an injury that hits Boston hard. In fact, in terms of immediate shock and devastation. In terms of feeling like youve simultaneously taken a lead pipe to the shins and a cannonball to the gut, Rondos ACL is the most heartbreaking injury to hit this town since Tom Brady tore his ACL in 2008.
OK, maybe not as bad. After all, with a healthy Brady, those Patriots were Super Bowl favorites. That injury may have cost the Pats a title that theyve yet to reclaim, and potentially never will. Meanwhile, even with Rondo, these Celtics were barely contenders. Wed already made peace with this not being the year.
Then again, in some ways, Rondo's ACL is worse. For instance, when Brady went down, the Patriots just hit pause. We all did. After the initial shock, it was pretty much: OK, this sucks. But its just one year. Theyll come back next season and pick up right where they left off. And for the most part, thats exactly what theyve done. Even though that fourth ring remains barely out of reach, 2008 is nothing more than a blip on the Patriots radar.
Rondos injury feels bigger than that.
It is bigger than that.
It wont be remembered as a blip, or the source of one lost season over a decade of dominance. Instead, it very likely marks the end of an era, a turning point in Celtics history. For the Cs, theres no picking up where they left off because we have no clue where they are, or where theyre headed. And while its fun to look forward to the next time Rondo takes the floor, that visions clouded by serious questions as to who will be out there with him.
But before we get to that to borderline useless speculation over what will happen next I want to take a moment to share a few more thoughts on the still-shocking reality of this injury: The fact that Rajon Rondo has a torn ACL and is out for the rest of the year.
The Background: First, the details surrounding his injury are almost as unexplainable and perplexing as the Manti Teo story, but one thing that appears astoundingly certain is that Rondo played 12 minutes on Friday night AFTER tearing his ACL.
Maybe we shouldnt be surprised. After all, Rondos already well-established as one the freakiest freaks of nature in the entire league. Over the last six-plus seasons, hes shown a tolerance for pain that rivals a rhino. If anyone could pull that off, I imagine it would be him. Then again, I don't know. How is that even possible?
The Circumstances: Obviously, whats done is done, and its probablydefinitely unhealthy to obsess over all the different ways this story could have played out. But the fact that Rondos injury occurred in the final two minutes of regulation in a game that the Celtics led by 27 points in the first half is something that will stick with us for while, and remain incredibly hard to swallow.
Honestly, I think the only worse scenario would be if he'd suffered the injury on that night a few months back in Detroit, when he spent garbage time trying to extend his double digit assist streak. Either that, or if he'd hurt himself trying to dunk it after the whistle.
The Reality: Through all the disappointment over Rondo's loss, there will be an urge to remember him in the best possible light. Its like when youre on the wrong end of a break up from a relationship that you know was in trouble. Still, after he or she kicks you to the curb, you only think about the good times. Before long, you've built your ex up to be this perfect human being, and can't bare to face life without them.
On that note, here's something I wrote about Rondo just last week:
When you factor in the increased expectations, there's no question that this is the most disappointing season of his career. Oh, he's leading the league in assists? Fine, but what good is that when the offense sucks. The Celtics rank 21st in the NBA in offensive efficiency this year. That's horrible. So ask yourself, does leading the league in assists mean that Rondo's making the Celtics better, or that he just always has the ball?
Two things that aren't up for debate:
1. Rondo's perimeter defense is still non-existent.
2. He still won't attack the rim.
Want to see something crazy?
As a 20-year-old rookie, Rondo averaged 23.5 minutes and 2.4 foul shot attempts a game.
As a 26-year-old four-time All Star, Rondo's averaging 37.2 minutes and 2.5 foul shot attempts a game.
As a rookie, he shot .647 from the line. This year, he's at .640.
That's really disturbing.
So, yeah. Not that this makes anyone feel better, but it's worth reminding ourselves of how underwhelming Rondo's been this season. That on many, many occasions, he wasn't putting forth the level of focus and effort that this team needed to be successful. He was just going through the motions.
But on the bright side, maybe this injury will serve as a wake-up call? Maybe his time away from the game will give Rondo a greater appreciation for every moment that he's lucky enough to spend on an NBA court, and help him mature into a player who takes nothing for granted and plays every game like it's his last?
Or maybe that's just too cliche for Rondo, but if anything's going to flip that switch, these next nine months or so should do it.
The Rehab: Rondo has a long road to recovery, and one that's sure to be made more difficult by the fact that he's Rondo. I mean, let's face it, for the next however long, he's going to be faced with a lot of restrictions; with teams of doctors constantly telling him what he can and cannot do. It's going to really test Rondo's patience and he has very little to begin with. I don't imagine it will go over very well.
At the end of the day, who knows? Maybe he'll come out of it a calmer, more patient and understanding person? Either way, I don't envy those doctors for a second.
The Foul Shot: You know, once Rondo undergoes surgery (it will reportedly happen in 10-14 days), it will be a while before he resumes any legitimate basketball activity, BUT theres one aspect of the game that hell be able to work on long before anything else.
That's right, foul shots.
With the way Rondo's mid-range jumper has improved as of late, it's obvious that there's a shooting touch residing somewhere in his body. But the foul line is a place where he's yet to even remotely put the pieces together. If ever, the time is now.
The Void: There are two kinds of sports fansmedia personalities in Boston.
The first group doesn't like basketball very much. They're Celtics fans (maybe), but not NBA fans. They don't get today's game. They don't even try. Ask someone in this group to name their five favorite players in NBA history, and I guarantee at least three of the five will be white, and all of them will have been retired for at least a decade.
This group hates Rondo. They've treated him as a scapegoat for years. As an easy target on which to dump all the Celtics problems without having to give it more than two seconds of thought. To be honest, this group will be rooting for the Celtics more now than have in years. They'd love for the Green to succeed without No. 9 so that they can run with the narrative of how much better Boston is without him.
If this Celtics fail, they'll have nothing to talk about.
The second group loves basketball. They love the Celtics and the NBA. They know that Rondo may be one of the biggest pains in the ass to come through this city in a long, long time, but that he's also one of the most unique and mesmerizing talents to ever wear Green.
Even though he didn't bring it every night, with Rondo there was always the chance the expectation that you were going to see something that you never have before. He sees the game in ways that very few ever have. Not all those ways are necessarily positive but it's all unique. Paul Flannery once called Rondo "an artist in a land of genetic misfits" and I think that sums it up pretty perfectly. Either way, the bottom is that for those who truly love basketball, Rondo's absence goes far beyond wins and losses.
It takes away from the game itself.
The other two: You can only imagine whats going through the heads of KG and Pierce right now. Even if Rondo wasnt truly enough to bring them another title, he did represent the only chance. He was something to believe in.
Over these last few months, I dont think theres any doubt that Pierce and Garnett had grown a little frustrated with Rondo. Or maybe just with what had become of this team since handing him the torch. But deep down, they knew what we knew, which is that when it came to the playoffs when it came to winning time Rondo was going to be everything that they needed him to be.
The Future: OK, now lets get back to the future, because you can't talk about Paul and KG without touching on the No. 1 fear associated with this horrible development:
What happens next? What if this is it? What if Friday nights disaster in Atlanta was the last time well ever see Rondo, Pierce and Kevin Garnett share the floor?
Imagine Rondo grabbing a defensive rebound in traffic. He instantly turns and starts streaking down the wing. Hes pushing it at about three-quarters Rondo speed, evaluating the entire floor after every single dribble. Hes at half court. Now hes at the three-point line. Hes not worried about how the defense will react because he already knows. He knows before they do. Hes just waiting for it all to unfold. And then, at the perfect moment, he flings an underhand crosscourt bounce pass like an NFL referee throwing the ball back to the line of scrimmage, like nothing else youll see in the NBA that hits Pierce in stride, right in the chest. In one motion, Pierce pulls up a transition three and just nails it.
Now imagine the same scenario, only this time Rondo keeps pushing the ball into the paint. He takes it to the hoop, and then dribbles along the baseline. He's not going to shoot. The entire world knows he's not going to shoot it. Now he's on the other side of the hoop, headed in the wrong direction, out towards the three-point line, maybe he throws the ball between his legs or behind his back, just to give the defense something else to think about, when all of a sudden . . .
The ball goes up. Kevin Garnett follows. He catches the rock and throws it down hard. It's an alley oop. Rondo-to-KG. One of the defining connections of this era of Celtics basketball. As they run back down the court, Garnett subtly points in Rondo's direction. The point guard pretends not to see it, but you know he does. He sees everything.
And right now, Celtics fans would give anything to see one of those two plays again. Just once. But . . . we just don't know.
Is it over?
Is this it?
Personally, I don't really see the point in trading Pierce or Garnett. I mean, clearly if someone comes along and blows Danny Ainge away with an offer, then yeah, you make the deal. I just don't know why anybody would do that. I don't see the the stars aligning for Pierce or KG to be shipped out of town.
But as I've said before, I also don't see too much motivation for either guy to come back for another season. It seems unlikely, especially with Rondo's availability in the limbo, that either future Hall of Famer will want to go through the grind and drama of the NBA season just sneak into a seventh or eighth seed, or even end up in the lottery. They don't need it.
That's not to say that I think the Celtics are screwed in 2013. Even without Rondo, I think they can compete. I think they can stay in the playoff race. Maybe even make it to the second round. But at this point, it will take very little to derail this season.
You look at the rest of this team, and it's crazy how fortunate they've been on the injury front. Do you realize that Pierce, Garnett, Jason Terry, Courtney Lee, Brandon Bass, Jared Sullinger and Jeff Green have combined to miss a total of ZERO games this year? That's almost as ridiculous as Rondo playing 12 minutes on a torn ACL. And it's hard to believe that the Celtics can stay so impeccably healthy the rest of the way.
An injury here, an injury there, and this thing might get out of hand quickly. And in that case, if Boston ends up in the lottery, I have a real hard time seeing KG and Pierce back again, in which case this really is the end. It was the end.
But for now, all we can do is wait. At least another two weeks. Because to be honest, I'm still holding out that he comes through on that promise to Max.