Sunday was supposed to be about Ray Allen’s return to Boston.
Instead, it was about Rajon Rondo’s departure.
Rondo will miss the remainder of the 2012-13 season after it was discovered shortly before Sunday’s tipoff, a game that the Celtics won in double-overtime, 100-98, that he had a torn ACL in his right knee.
The injury occurred late in the fourth quarter of the Celtics’ double-overtime loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Friday, although Rondo continued to play through the injury.
But in the win over the Heat, the C’s played like a team that didn’t know about their superstar’s season-ending injury. That’s because they didn’t.
Doc Rivers found out 24 minutes before the game started that Rondo would miss the game and a torn ACL was feared, but elected to not tell his guys – or Rondo for that matter. That could have been the difference between winning or losing to the Heat, a game Boston desperately needed, and got.
The celebration after the win was cut short. Paul Pierce learned of the injury through ESPN during a walk-off interview. The rest of the team heard when Rivers walked into the locker room and told them point-blank. Cheers were immediately replaced with silence.
“It was a great win,” Pierce said after the game. “You’re on an emotional high in the locker room and then you see that Rondo’s probably going to be out for the season. You have a lot of mixed emotions in here. You want to celebrate the win but you know you feel for your teammate, a leader. Pretty much wherever he go, we go. It’s hard knowing that he’s going to be out for the year. It’s a tough pill to swallow.”
It’s tough for Pierce, but even tougher for Rondo, who didn’t speak after the game.
“I know he’s sad. I’m sad for him. Just like they were for me last year,” fellow guard Avery Bradley said. “We’re family, so you feel bad for him. You know, I know he wants the best for us, and wants us to continue to go out there and play hard for him every game. And that’s what we are going to do.”
Rondo has been the team’s best player this season, averaging 13.7 points, 11.1 assists, and 5.6 rebounds. He plays the most minutes, and has his hand in just about every play while on the floor. He’s what makes the Celtics run.
You don’t just replace a player like that.
The Celtics know it, too. They know there’s nobody on their team – or maybe even in the league – who can do the things he’s done on a nightly basis. That said, they aren’t going to lie down either.
While Twitter already had Pierce traded and the Celtics hoping for the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NBA lottery within minutes of the Rondo news, the team has other ideas.
“I like the team still,” Rivers said. “Obviously that’s a blow. It’s a huge blow for us. Listen, when something like this happens, someone will find someone that’s already in our locker room that’s going to play terrific. And I have no idea who it is. Tonight it was LB [Leandro Barbosa]. And the team. And that’s what we’re going to have to do.”
Aside from Barbosa, there are other prime candidates that will have more opportunities. Courtney Lee looks to be one. Lee’s rocky start to the year has many underrating his ability, but he averaged over 11 points in 30 minutes per game last year while shooting 40 percent from 3-point range. He can also defend.
Green is another player that needs to “step up” on a consistent basis for the C’s. His defense on LeBron James down the stretch was pivotal for Boston on Sunday. If he can keep that up and be more aggressive on offense, that contract will look a little better.
Jason Terry will also see more minutes with Rondo out, and when you’re struggling to find your shot like Terry has been, the best way to find it is to keep shooting. More minutes will allow that to happen, to an extent anyways.
“We still like our chances in the Eastern Conference,” Pierce said. “We found we can play anybody with the team we put out there. Even without Rondo. I mean new guys are going to get an opportunity now. I know guys have taken the lesser role because of the way our team is built and now they may have to take on a bigger role. You know we have guys that are more than capable who are stepping up. You know there’s Courtney Lee, or there’s Leandro Barbosa. You know these guys can play. You know with the system we have, with Rondo being our primary playmaker, a 40-minute guy. These guys haven’t had a chance to really showcase what they can do. And now they will have that opportunity.”
The future is uncertain for the C’s. Danny Ainge has decisions to make, for sure. But Rivers made one thing clear in the wake of the Rondo news: The Celtics aren’t dead.
“Well you can write the obituary. I’m not,” Rivers said. “You can go ahead. But I’m not. We won tonight, and so the way I look at is: we’re going to stay in there. In my opinion, we’re going nowhere.”