BOSTON -- Early in the second quarter of Friday's game, long before the Oklahoma City Thunder motored away for a 101-83 thumping of the Boston Celtics, there was a sequence that perfectly encapsulated Rajon Rondo's return to game action.
Grabbing a rebound in traffic, Rondo broke out in transition. He showcased some familiar speed as Thunder guards rushed back to plug up the lane. Rondo nearly lost the ball while attacking the paint, but audibled to a spin move that left Derek Fisher swiping at air, and put Rondo in position to deliver a layup.
But Rondo didn't have the usual explosiveness while leaping off his right leg inside the circle, and rookie Steven Adams, who was trailing the play, managed to block Rondo's shot from behind.
It was a tantalizing glimpse of what Rondo has been for much of his career, and a friendly reminder that he's still working his way back from major knee surgery.
Rondo finished with five points on 2-of-9 shooting with a game-high eight assists, two rebounds and three turnovers during 21 minutes, 43 seconds of action on Friday night at TD Garden. He was a minus-9 in plus/minus while Boston as a team watched a Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook-less Thunder squad dominate the second half while motoring away in one of Boston's most lopsided losses at home in recent memory.
Rondo is not himself yet, and that's OK.
We've already been reminded not to expect playoff Game 7 Rondo. No, this is preseason Game 4 Rondo. And through those four games, Rondo is averaging 5 points, 5.3 assists, 3.3 rebounds, 1 steal and 2.5 turnovers over 22 minutes per game. He is minus-20 in that span and Boston is 0-4.
It's hard to get a fair read on Rondo's progress, given the minutes restriction he's enduring and the Celtics' lackluster play as a team.
After Friday's game, Rondo wasn't initially forthcoming on his progress, saying, "I'm getting there," but seeming unwilling to delve too deep into how he judges his progress or what exactly he's looking for from himself.
When pressed on his explosiveness, Rondo admitted it's not where he'd like it to be, but seemed to understand that it would be unrealistic to expect it to be at a high level this early in his return.
At the moment, his focus is more on the team.
"I try to lose myself within the team," said Rondo. "The plays I usually make, I'm not making right now. But I still feel positive and I'm OK with my progression right now."
This is simply the way it will be as Rondo works his way back. There will soon come a night, particularly as his minutes restriction eases, when Rondo will have a vintage effort with highlight-reel plays and double-digit assists, and the immediate overreaction will be to suggest he's back to his familiar self.
But more than likely, the next month (or three) will feature ups and downs as Rondo navigates this return to game action while wearing the cumbersome brace he'd sooner throw in the nearest river.
No one will be harder on Rondo than himself. Which is why it's encouraging that, in the infancy of his return to game action, he seems to understand this is going to be a slow climb at times.
On Friday, Rondo made a 3-pointer from the right wing on his first shot of the game, but missed five of his next six shots. Rondo did a nice job getting to the basket at times, splitting a pair of defenders and utilizing a little ball-fake to create a fourth-quarter layup for his only other hoop. But sometimes he was too strong on layups, or a floater in traffic was off the mark. He's still trying to find the familiar English to put on some of those odd-angle shot attempts.
Teammates seemed to agree that Rondo was moving better, playing lighter on his feet following a couple days off after sitting out Wednesday's game in Washington on the second night of a back-to-back.
But the minutes restriction is still conspiring against him.
"I think the more he gets warm out on the court, the better he is," said veteran guard Gerald Wallace, who started next to Rondo in the backcourt. "With him on his minute restriction, it kind of messes him up, because it seems like once he gets going and gets his rhythm, he has to come out. Hopefully we get to see him for those stretches of time where we can really see how he does once he gets to sweating."
And it's hard to fully gauge Rondo's progress when the Celtics are getting run out of their own gymnasium.
"Again, you guys are a lot more focused on him as an individual storyline standpoint than I am," admitted Celtics coach Brad Stevens. "I'm obviously concerned about him and making sure that he's OK to go out and play. I'm monitoring his minutes, making sure. But I'm more looking at our collective and how we played as a group.
"I did think that he did some good things, but, again, it's kind of like I said, I don't want to put all this on him, good or bad, because it's still only young in his exhibition season. Fair or unfair to him, I want to make sure that we're fair to him and, at the same time, we can focus on our team and how we're playing collectively as well. I did think he looked a little bit lighter on his feet, I guess, would be the right word, and I think that would be the case as you get better conditioning."
Over in the visitor's locker room at TD Garden, Rondo's best buddy Kendrick Perkins reflected on Rondo's rehab and said he's reminding him not to overthink everything.
"He seemed a little nervous [during rehab]," said Perkins. "He was a little scared. Every little thing was bothering him and stuff like that. I told him there was nothing wrong with it. He was like, 'Man, I keep hearing this and this.' You know how he gets. I had to tell him, once he steps on the court, everything else will go out the window. And I called him after he came back for his first game, and he said, 'Oh, I was good. I made me some shots.' I told him it will come."
Perkins, who tore his ACL in Game 6 of the 2010 NBA Finals and returned to game action just six months later, is trying to aid Rondo through the rehab process.
"He'll call me and just ask me different questions about what [he] needs to do and stuff like that. I just told him to make sure he stays on top of it," said Perkins. "Make sure he works the opposite leg, the leg that he didn't hurt, the same as he's working the leg that he did hurt. Because once you tear your ACL, it's a 50-50 chance that you could tear the other one, because a lot of other guys don't focus on strengthening the other leg as much. I just told him to make sure to stay on top of that."
Rondo seems at peace navigating this process slowly. Asked if he was OK with sitting out Wednesday's game on the back-to-back, he said, "Better safe than sorry." Pressed on the topic, Rondo added, "I've been sitting for about 40 games anyway." He also noted that the Celtics play only two more back-to-backs before the All-Star break, with the tail end of those two-game sets coming Jan. 29 against Philadelphia and Feb. 10 in Milwaukee.
Rondo isn't going to rush things now after taking it slow to this point.
"It's just part of it," said Rondo. "Nobody likes it, especially when you're used to playing 30-plus minutes, 35-plus minutes. It's different, but I want to make sure I'm still coming back healthy."
Eventually, he'll be the Rondo we know. Just give it time.