WALTHAM, Mass. -- With every checkpoint in Rajon Rondo's ACL rehab, the buzz about his return has grown, escalating last month when he was cleared for full-contact workouts and reaching a crescendo this week with his tweet hinting at Friday's return to game action against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens has been bombarded with questions about Rondo this week, but tired as he may be of navigating those, even Stevens admitted on the eve of Rondo's return that he's curious to see how it will impact his team.
"I'm intrigued to see how that all shakes itself out," Stevens said Thursday. "There was a great excitement level to our play [during Wednesday's win over the Toronto Raptors] just because we had a 10-guys-backs-against-the-wall type deal. But you also had the thing with Rajon possibly coming back Friday that added to that."
The Celtics snapped a nine-game losing streak on Wednesday, a game in which Rondo was activated and sat on the bench as a dress rehearsal for Friday's return.
"I think, obviously, the community is going to be really excited, as they should be, and our players will be really excited," Stevens said. "And I think it's appropriate for everyone to temper their expectations of him, especially early on in this comeback."
Ah yes, expectations. Celtics players and staffers have gone out of their way to temper those this week, reminding us we shouldn't expect the same player who averaged 13.7 points, 11.1 assists and 5.6 rebounds over 37.4 minutes per game last season before tearing his ACL in late January.
The Rondo that the Celtics will receive Friday will be on a minutes restriction designed to initially limit him to 18-20 minutes overall (and maybe just five minutes per quarter). The Celtics have taken things slow with Rondo to this point, and they don't plan to hit the accelerator just because he's getting back on the floor.
Danny Ainge did joke that Rondo will likely be trying to check himself into games in order to stretch out his minutes early on, but the team is looking at his return as simply the next step in his rehab process.
"I think he's anxious to play, and I just didn't think he's been ready to play," Ainge said of Rondo taking it slow to this point. He is just less than a year removed from the initial tear and 11 months out from surgery.
"So the last few weeks have been really focused on continuing the rehab and the strength training of his leg, but also conditioning," Ainge said. "He does a lot and playing point guard in the NBA against some of the greatest athletes requires a great deal of conditioning, and I think he was a little bit surprised when he had a couple practices and realized how far he had to go from a conditioning standpoint."
Being out there against the rival Lakers will likely give Rondo an adrenaline boost, but his body will dictate just how much he's able to do.
"I think it's going to be hard for him to have a minutes restriction," Stevens said. "There might be some wind [issues] that comes along with that, but he's going to want to play once he's out there. That's the way it works. We'll listen to all of the medical personnel to make sure that we're doing this right. I look at this as part of his rehab."
The Celtics are hoping that Rondo's presence can foster some additional consistency for Boston's offense, add a sure-handed ball handler for a team prone to turning the ball over this season, and provide a calming effect when this team endures the lulls that have plagued it this season.
One thing Stevens & Co. are not worried about is Rondo knowing the playbook. He's been with the team nearly every step of this 2013-14 journey and Stevens joked that Rondo probably knows the playbook better than some others on the team (he meant newcomers like Joel Anthony and Jerryd Bayless, but Rondo probably does know the playbook better than guys who have been here since the start of the season, too).
And ultimately it's the wild-card presence of Rondo that really intrigues Stevens, especially as he sheds the rust of that yearlong absence.
"He hasn't called a game on the fly in a while, and one of the things that I'll try to help him do [Thursday] is figure out what might be some of the best things, just off the top of his mind, that he can blow out," Stevens said. "He's already studied it enough. He's a guy a lot like [Peyton] Manning and [Tom] Brady and all those guys. He can see things and audible on the fly, and that's pretty good. So I want to talk to him about some of these things. And he has a lot of freedom to make reads."
Will Rondo's presence translate to more wins? The Celtics seem more concerned with simply getting Rondo back into shape and seeing how he meshes with the other talent on the team, especially as Boston builds toward the future.
"Fans are pretty smart," Ainge said. "They know [Rondo] hasn't played basketball for a year, and he's just been practicing. I'm optimistic that Rondo will be pretty good when he comes back."
But Ainge knows Rondo will face obstacles, both physically and mentally.
"I've seen some pretty mentally tough guys that have still had to overcome a little bit when they came back from ACL [injuries]," Ainge said. "But he is tough. I anticipate him coming back faster than any of us think. If anything, the guy is a great competitor and he has a lot of pride and he's not going to admit to being tired and hurt and mentally challenged getting back to this. He's a guy that I think will fight through the adversity."
Just keep the initial bar of expectations at a reasonable height.
"I don't think we can expect him to be Game 7 Rajon Rondo [on Thursday]," Stevens said. "This is part of this process of getting back to full-go, and now the next step is to play a maximum number of minutes in a game."
Rondo's return is just the latest checkpoint in his return to being Rajon Rondo.