Rajon Rondo looked rusty in his first five minutes, missing his first two shots, one of them an air-balled jumper from the left baseline. He checked out after five minutes of floor time.
But when he checked back in with 7:31 left in the second quarter, the Celtics’ All-Star point guard, who hadn’t played in nearly a year after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee on Jan. 25, 2013, started to look like his old self.
He scored a layup in the lane after faking a behind-the-back pass that fooled the defense.
Then, after Jared Sullinger stole the ball, Rondo took a feed and scored on an easy fast break 19 seconds later.
Rondo then made a pair of quick buckets, giving him 8 straight points for the Celtics. He was also pushing the ball up the floor, and the rest of the Celtics were following.
At halftime, the Celtics led, 58-52, and Rondo had 8 points — all scored in the second quarter — on 4-for-7 shooting in 9:35 of floor time.
In the pregame introductions, Rondo was introduced as the Celtics’ captain, making him their 15th captain in team history and first since Paul Pierce, who held that title from 2003-13 before being traded from the Celtics to Brooklyn this offseason.
Rondo received a huge ovation from the crowd before the game, along with receiving the December Kia Community Assist Award in recognition of his charitable efforts and his history of generosity in the community.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens confirmed before the game that Rondo would play and that his minutes would be restricted.
“So we want to be right around the 20-minute mark, give or take, obviously,” Stevens said. “I think it’s fair to temper our expectations because this is really still part of his rehab, in my opinion, because he’s on a limited block. And he hasn’t played in a competitive game for a long time.
“This will be a great opportunity for him and it’s great for us to have him back out on the floor with our team.”
Stevens said he had an idea how many minutes Rondo would play in the first half, but that they’d play it by feel in the second half. Part of Stevens’s job will be managing Rondo’s desire to play more on a night when the Celtics don’t want to overdo it with him.
“I think he’s going to want to play in every game, because he likes basketball and he hasn’t been able to play it for a while,” Stevens said. “I talked to him yesterday about, ‘When your adrenaline kicks in tonight, you’re going to want to play more. And we can’t do that.’ That expectation has already been talked about.”
Naturally, Stevens was excited to coach Rondo, the Celtics’ best player, for the first time.
“Well, yeah, I’m excited to have our best player on the court. I think that’s No. 1, right?” Stevens said. “But certainly he’s a guy that can make plays, he makes plays for others, he lifts up everybody else’s game. So, yeah, I am excited about that.”
But there will be adjustments for the rest of the Celtics players, several of whom hadn’t played with Rondo — and thus aren’t used to him throwing passes out of nowhere.
“I think our trainers are prepared for four jammed fingers and stitches in the eyes and everything else,” Stevens joked. “Fans need to be ready, everybody around the court needs to have their hands up and ready.
“We’ve seen a little bit of that in practice, but the good news is he’s been practicing full-go for almost a month now. I don’t think our guys will be too surprised. But I think they now understand, you better be ready.”
Sullinger said he was ready, and so are his teammates.
“I think we’re going to feed off him tonight,” Sullinger said. “When he’s going, I think we’re going to go as a team tonight. I think we’re going to take it to another level when he’s out there.
“It’s going to be fun. I heard he’s starting, too, as well, so I can’t wait to hear the roar when he comes back.”