BOSTON -- Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens watched the Toronto Raptors rally from an 18-point deficit to make it a one-possession game with 14.4 seconds to go, and his team used its last timeout after being thwarted in its first attempt to inbound the basketball.
There, on the Boston bench, just a couple seats down from Stevens sat Rajon Rondo, the All-Star point guard who was activated Wednesday night for the first time since tearing his ACL nearly one year ago. But Stevens, his available bodies thinned by a trade earlier in the day, fought any temptation to utilize Rondo to simply put the ball in play.
"Well, we were up three with no timeouts trying to get the ball in bounds and one of the best passers in the world is sitting right next to me, so no [there was no chance Rondo was going in for emergency duty]," said Stevens. "I told [assistant coach] Jay Larranaga that he was next, and [assistant coach] Walter [McCarty] was right after him, depending on what we needed. So that was the way we were going to roll tonight. Those guys were kind of excited about it."
Despite the Celtics' coy nature and Rondo's not-so cryptic tweets, all signs point to Rondo making his 2013-14 season debut on Friday night when the rival Los Angeles Lakers visit TD Garden.
Rondo essentially went through a dress rehearsal on Wednesday night, suiting up and going through pregame drills before watching the Celtics snap a nine-game losing streak with an 88-83 triumph over the Atlantic Division-leading Raptors.
During the pregame layup line, Avery Bradley spotted Rondo and got goosebumps. Even though everyone is well aware of his impending return, it was still striking to see Rondo back on the floor on the cusp of returning to game action 11 months after ACL surgery.
"It felt funny, because it's been so long," Bradley said, a smile forming. "I'm just super excited for him."
Bradley talked about getting a win to help usher in the return of Boston's All-Star point guard, then caught himself a bit and stuck with the company line that no one knows for sure when Rondo will return.
But, make no mistake, Bradley is giddy for that moment. He doesn't want to put too much pressure on Rondo, but Bradley thinks he's going to perform well right out of the gate and, most importantly, Bradley knows Rondo will make his teammates better.
"I know he's a great player," said Bradley. "One thing I can say is, when he does come back, he's going to make it easier on everybody. I'm just excited."
After the Celtics traded away Jordan Crawford on Wednesday, undrafted rookie free agent Phil Pressey did his best to set the table for Rondo. Making his first NBA start, Pressey handed out 10 assists and didn't turn the ball over in 26 steady minutes. Pressey will still figure prominently into Boston's backcourt for the foreseeable future as Stevens made it clear that Rondo will be on a minutes restriction when he returns.
"Listen, if Rondo comes back Friday -- and I still haven't been told yes or no -- but if he comes back Friday, he's only going to play 18 to 20 minutes," said Stevens. "And he's coming back from playing for the first time in a year. For any of us to expect him to be in playoff form is not fair to him."
But even Stevens admitted that his team will get an emotional jolt from Rondo's return to game action.
"I think his energy and his leadership will lift our team," said Stevens. "But I don't think we should put too much on his shoulders anyways, whether we won the last game or lost the last game [before his return]."
The Celtics lined up some final physical tests for Rondo to endure Wednesday to ensure his readiness for Friday's return. That included having the Maine Red Claws, the team's D-League affiliate, practice at the Celtics' training center in Waltham.
Based on the team's email releases noting that Rondo had been assigned (and later recalled), the point guard spent 1 hour and 53 minutes in the D-League -- 6,780 seconds in Rondo's Twitter conversions -- before rejoining the parent club. Teammate Kris Humphries took to Twitter to joke about the quick assignment/recall, suggesting the Celtics missed Rondo during his stint in the D-League.
Rondo's impending return gave Boston the ability to ship out MarShon Brooks and Crawford to Golden State on Wednesday as part of a three-team trade that brought back Miami Heat center Joel Anthony and as many as three future draft picks.
Boston is building toward the future, but that future starts now with Rondo's return.
The Celtics will use the final three months of the regular season (or 7,776,000 seconds) to confirm what Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has screamed since June, that Rondo is the centerpiece of this organization moving forward.
From there, it's judging the pieces currently on the roster that best fit alongside him. Is Bradley worth the boost in salary he'll command this offseason to share the backcourt with Rondo? Can Jeff Green finally find consistency when Rondo returns? How can Rondo get even more out of Jared Sullinger, who had a monster night Wednesday with 25 points and 20 rebounds?
The Celtics have been eagerly awaiting this moment. Stevens fought the urge to usher it in a little early on Wednesday, but now it appears to be go time.
Let the future begin.