The king was slain. The major was shot. The ship's captain slipped off the deck and that rickety bridge snapped before the white knight could rescue the princess from the top of the tower. All of those disasters combined couldn't replicate the heart-sinking feeling of pure pessimism that overcame Boston Celtics fans this past Sunday.
No, it wasn't the result against the Miami Heat, an unexpected victory in double-overtime the type of which has been too rare this year. Instead, during the game itself, widespread reports emerged that Rajon Rondo's knee injury wasn't day-to-day as initially reported, but instead a season ending torn ACL. Rondo, the team's all-star point guard who was expected to lead the team deep in the playoffs this year, will undergo surgery soon and there is no chance he will play another minute of basketball again this season.
For the long-term, this injury is more like a punctured tire than a blown out engine. Modern medicine and technology allows ACL replacement and rehabilitation to be a manageable setback rather than a career definer. Fellow professional point guard Ricky Rubio has already successfully returned within a year from his torn ACL, while Derrick Rose is in the process of coming back to the Chicago Bulls. Both of those players share the same sport as Rondo, but the Celtics have already said that they will look to the rehabilitation approach of NFL player Adrian Peterson to layout Rondo's return. Peterson tore his ACL towards the end of the 2011 season, but returned in time for the first game of 2012 before finishing the season just nine yards short of the rushing record.
They may play different sports, but the Celtics now share the same goals for Rondo, as the Minnesota Vikings did for Peterson.
Long-term plans really aren't the issue right now. The Celtics must decide what to do in the short-term without Rondo in the lineup. It's not even a matter of picking his replacement, there are a group of guards who can be the team's new primary ball-handler. Jason Terry excelled with the ball in his hands late in games with the Dallas Mavericks. Avery Bradley was a point guard in college. Leandro Barbosa has proven more than capable of running an effective offense for the Celtics this year. Paul Pierce may not be as athletic as Rondo, but he does have the intelligence to make those around him better and the ability to get his own shot.
Head Coach Doc Rivers, a former point guard, is a smart enough coach to help his team handle the loss of their leading light. Rondo's 37 minute, five rebound, 11 assist and 14 point performances won't be replaced by any one individual, but the team's ability to be effective as a unit shouldn't suddenly slip of the side of a cliff. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and Avery Bradley in particular have too much pride to simply fall apart without their 26-year-old point guard. Not only will the spare guards look to make the most of their extended time on the court, the rest of the team should step up their efforts to better effect on the court. Often, losing a superstar can kill a team, but across all sports the right group of players can come together around that loss to generate a new identity of resilience. That would require expert guidance and leadership from the team's veterans, but more importantly added impact from fringe players such as Jeff Green, Brandon Bass and Jared Sullinger.
The Celtics were never going to be a Finals favorite or even a major contender in the East based on their play this year with Rondo. However, this change doesn't doom them the way some will say it does. There is no greater reason for the team to abandon their short-term goals now without Rondo, than there was when he was in the lineup. Compensation for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in trades won't have bloated just because Rondo is out. The future outlook is the same today as it was on Saturday.
Doc Rivers is an excellent head coach. Given a few months to prepare his team for a playoff run, he could still push the team to the NBA Finals. Nobody expected the group to push the Eastern Conference Finals to seven games last year. Even though they had a much more talented team last year with Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo, they didn't have the same kind of depth or the potential for players to take major steps forward.
Garnett and Pierce aren't going to get better between now and the post-season, but for various reasons many of the rest of the roster could. Missing a whole season because of heart surgery will undoubtedly have played a part in Jeff Green's hesitance on the court this season. The more he plays the less that should show. The further Avery Bradley gets from his shoulder problems the better. Jason Terry is still adjusting to life after the Mavericks, while Brandon Bass may eventually come out of his funk to return to last year's form. Most importantly, rookie Jared Sullinger appears to be getting better and better as the season goes on. Sullinger has the potential to be a game-changer for the Celtics by the time the playoffs come around.
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