BOSTON — A roar went up for Rajon Rondo in the second overtime of what his teammates hoped would be their breakthrough win of this troubled season. Rondo was sitting in a corner of the arena near the players’ exit in his winter coat with a scarf around his neck and a frozen expression. He didn’t look up to see himself on the scoreboard TVs, he didn’t wave to acknowledge the cheers and his expression didn’t thaw. By then he knew what so many of his teammates and fans didn’t yet know as they fought and cheered to beat the defending champion Heat.
Rondo had found out only a short time earlier that he wasn’t going to play another game this season. He looked as if he still couldn’t believe the result of his MRI that confirmed he had torn the ACL of his right knee.
“He kept saying, I think I did something to my hamstring,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said of his All-Star point guard. “He never said anything about the knee.”
Rondo couldn’t remember when he might have suffered the injury during a double-overtime loss Friday at Atlanta. The team believed it might have happened in the fourth quarter, in which case Rondo played at least 10 minutes — the entirety of both OTs — with an injury that normally sidelines athletes for 8-to-12 months.
“Even today in the shootaround,” Rivers said of the Celtics’ pregame walkthrough Sunday, “he had the [ice] pack on the back of his hamstring.” Dr. Brian McKeon, the Celtics’ physician, approached Rondo at the walkthrough. “McKeon walked in and said, ‘Let me check the hamstring,’ ” Rivers said. “And he walked over to me and said, ‘I’m sending him to an MRI, but I’m telling you its an ACL.’ “
Rivers didn’t tell Rondo and he didn’t tell Rondo’s teammates because the diagnosis was not confirmed. Rivers shook his head emotionally at the thought of coaching the team in spite of the secret he had to keep. And yet he was inspired by the result — a 100-98 win to ruin Ray Allen’s return to Boston. The 58 enervating minutes would be both encouraging and deflating for the Celtics, who were celebrating the end of a six-game losing streak in the absence of their best player until Rivers came into the locker room to say that their best player wouldn’t be coming back.
“He’s becoming the heart and soul of this team,” Kevin Garnett said of Rondo.
The short-term and long-term planning for the Celtics has changed with this blindsiding news. Team president Danny Ainge predicted that Rondo would undergo surgery in two weeks after the swelling in his knee had reduced. Based on Boston’s disappointing 21-23 start, speculation was growing around the team that trade offers would be investigated for Rondo — along with every other Celtic but Garnett — in order to discern his value leading up to the Feb. 21 trade deadline.
“Going forward, it’s going to be the same [way] that I’ve always done it: Which is if an opportunity presents itself that we like, we’ll do it,” Ainge said. “I can’t just make it up — now I’m going to blow the team up, or now I’m going to trade everybody to get first-round draft picks. I’ll just wait and see what opportunities there are.”
Asked about the impact of Rondo’s injury, Ainge said: “It may change a decision that I make, if something presents itself. I don’t know. But right now we’ll just go with what we’ve got. And guys have to step up.”
To that end, Ainge could be seen giving a pep talk to guard Avery Bradley after the game. There will be many more of those in the days to come as the Celtics change their offense in midseason. Rondo has dominated the ball with good reason — he was leading the NBA in assists (11.1) for the second straight year while earning five triple-doubles (no one else in the NBA has more than two). He was Boston’s third-leading scorer (13.7) and rebounder (5.6).
Now that half of their stars from last year’s Eastern Conference finalist are gone, the Celtics are likely to play through 35-year-old Paul Pierce with help from 36-year-old Garnett. Pierce responded with a triple-double of 17 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists to beat Miami. The playmaking role may yet renew Pierce, who was not selected to the All-Star Game after struggling to create shots for himself this season.
“I think that it’s easier to do in short segments than it is to do night in and night out,” Ainge said of relying on Pierce as the distributor. “The bottom line is all the guys have to step up and move the ball. We need to rely on five guys.”
The Celtics’ best hope is that the demand on Rivers to reinvent the offense around the skills of his remaining players will bring out the best in Jason Terry, Jeff Green and Courtney Lee, who have appeared uncomfortable while trying to fit into Boston’s system. The Celtics are now 3-3 without Rondo, with wins against the Knicks and Heat.
“Tonight was a perfect example,” Pierce said. “We showed we are capable. We’ve showed it in New York. We showed it tonight here against Miami. It’s just about getting it together, being consistent and playing with the kind of grit that we played with here tonight.”
That grit was inspired in no small part by the presence of Allen for the first time in Boston since he shocked the Celtics by leaving as a free agent last summer to sign with their conference rival. Many of the Celtics felt betrayed, and on the court neither Pierce nor Garnett sought out Allen for as much as a postgame handshake.
Allen was booed with each touch of the ball, though, to be fair, it sounded as if most in the audience were abstaining. When a highlight video celebrated his achievements in six years with the Celtics, including the 2008 championship, the initial boos were drowned out eventually by cheers and a standing ovation for Allen. During the video his new teammates gathered around Allen to applaud him, but there was no applause forthcoming from his former team.
Allen came off the bench to score 21 points on 7-of-17 shooting. Though he missed six threes in eight attempts, he threatened to get in the final word by canning two big three-pointers in the closing five minutes of regulation. But the Celtics ultimately overcame a three by LeBron James (34 points on 14-of-31 shooting to go with 16 rebounds and seven assists) with seven seconds left to force the first overtime. Pierce and Garnett combined for a couple of late scores to nullify an early Miami lead and force the second OT, during which Terry and Pierce rallied Boston from a three-point deficit.
“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.”
The truth is they were too surprised to grasp what it is going to mean. Ainge and Rivers can have no idea at this point whether this team should be held together, or whether one or more deals ought to be pursued at the expense of whatever slim hopes exist for the upcoming postseason — provided the Celtics are able to hold on. The lead over No. 9 Philadelphia for the final playoff spot is only 2.5 games, and while the Celtics have lost their best player, the 76ers are hoping for the return of center Andrew Bynum.