BOSTON – Rajon Rondo was having his best season for the struggling Boston Celtics.
He’s averaging career highs in points and rebounds. He leads the NBA in assists and triple-doubles by big margins. He was voted the starting point guard for the Eastern Conference in next month’s All-Star game.
“He’s our guy that’s orchestrating everything for us,” guard Courtney Lee said. “He’s our leader.”
Rondo is out for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee that requires surgery. So Coach Doc Rivers must find a replacement from a group short on point-guard experience amid a widespread feeling that the Celtics’ already shaky playoff prospects are over.
He doesn’t believe it.
“You can write the obituary,” Rivers told reporters after Sunday’s 100-98, double-overtime win over the Miami Heat. “I’m not. You can go ahead, but I’m not. We won (Sunday) and so the way I look at it is we’re going to stay in there.”
Lee could fill in at Rondo’s position. Or Jason Terry. Or Leandro Barbosa. Or, less likely, the Celtics could sign a free agent or trade for a point guard. Their first practice without Rondo is Tuesday.
“When something like this happens, someone will find someone that’s already in our locker room that’s going to play terrific,” Rivers said. “And I have no idea who it is.”
Sunday’s victory moved the Celtics (21-23) ahead of the Philadelphia 76ers by 2-1/2 games for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East. Their first full game since Rondo was ruled out for the season is Wednesday night at home against the Sacramento Kings.
Rivers’ players needed a break after their second straight double-overtime game and their third game in four days so he gave them Monday off.
In the first two — losses to the New York Knicks in Boston and the Hawks in Atlanta — Rondo had triple-doubles to bring his season total to five. No other player, not even LeBron James, has more than two. But the Celtics’ losing streak reached six games, their longest in six seasons.
On Sunday, Rondo was a late scratch with what the team first said was a hyperextended knee suffered late in the Atlanta game.
But after MRI results were read, the Celtics announced that he had a torn ACL.
Still, they overcame fatigue and Rondo’s absence to beat the defending NBA champions.
“That wasn’t our mind-set going out there, showing that we can play the game without him,” Lee said. “It was us coming together and fighting till the end. … It just shows that we are capable of playing without him.”
They’ve done it six times this season and are 3-3. With Rondo, they’re 18-20.
But the seven-year veteran is the most important player on a team with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, still outstanding but past their primes.
Rondo draws defenders to him on drives to the basket, then dishes off. He’s averaging 11.1 assists per game. Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers is second with 9.7.
Among guards, Rondo’s 5.6 rebounds per game lead the NBA and his 48.4 field-goal percentage ranks third. And he’s averaging 13.7 points.
Rondo “is becoming the heart and soul of this team,” Garnett said. “He’s coming into his own. He’s had some bumps in the road, but we’re trying to be supportive for him. It was a blow.”
The former first-round draft choice has a reputation for being moody and stubborn. He was the subject of trade talks before the 2010-11 and 2011-12 season, even being mentioned in a possible deal for Paul, who later was traded by the New Orleans Hornets to the Clippers.
Now he’s the Celtics’ most indispensable player.
Without him, Pierce almost certainly will handle the ball more.
“It just depends on who’s pressuring,” Rivers said after Sunday’s game. “We had the one lineup with (Barbosa and Terry). Neither one of them really want to handle the ball until the ball gets across half court, so we let Jeff (Green) bring it up, or Paul. It’s what we are.”
Garnett advised Rondo not to rush back before he’s ready.
“That’s the first thing I told him, ‘Do not play Superman,”‘ Garnett said.
Rivers is hoping Rondo will be ready at the start of next season. He could be, if the recovery of Chicago Bulls point guard and former league MVP Derrick Rose can serve as a guide.
Rose tore the ACL in his left knee last April 28 in the final 90 seconds of the opener of a first-round playoff series against the 76ers. He underwent surgery on May 12. He’s been increasing his workload and could be ready to play in the next few weeks. That would be less than 10 months since his injury.
Then there’s Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson. He tore the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee on Dec. 24, 2011 and had surgery six days later. He was back for the Vikings opener on Sept. 9, less than nine months later, and ran for two touchdowns in that game. He led the NFL in rushing with 2,097 yards, just nine short of Eric Dickerson’s NFL record.
So Rivers is hopeful.
The NBA season usually starts in late October, giving Rondo about nine months to recover.
“We’ve got a guy in the NFL that we can look at in Adrian Peterson,” Rivers said, “and whatever he did, that’s what we want to do. Because that was amazing. And that’s what Rondo will do.”