BOSTON – Rajon Rondo had never been so exuberant in the moment. He also had never been more ready to corral a ball that couldn’t stick to anyone’s hands and release a picture-perfect, free-throw-line jumper at the buzzer to cap a Lakers comeback in his old stomping grounds.
The reluctant shooter was mobbed by his teammates amidst a stunned TD Garden crowd after a thrilling finish to a whirlwind day where hardly anybody knew who’d be changing jerseys or staying put until that nail-biting 3 p.m. ET trade deadline.
After all the transactions, rumors and discussions … there was just basketball, the ultimate decider with the game of the year between two franchises mired in different places, yet both facing an uncertain present and future.
Even Rondo couldn’t deny his joy in putting the Boston Celtics away – and in front of Kevin Garnett, the former teammate who proudly wore Rondo’s No. 9 Celtics jersey for all to see.
“This is a storybook ending for me,” Rondo told Yahoo Sports. “We’ve got  more games. I don’t play for two, three more days, I can let this sink in.”
It’s hard to even let the day sink in. How many transactions hit the newswire? How many teams dramatically made a declaration of contention for a postseason that’s sure to be wild? No superstars were moved on Thursday, but stars received help, trade after trade in what appeared to be a game of one-upmanship between Eastern Conference contenders Milwaukee, Toronto and Philadelphia.
Philadelphia added Tobias Harris on Wednesday morning, and later rugged swingman Jonathon Simmons. Toronto plucked Marc Gasol out of Memphis, and Milwaukee further bolstered its treasure trove of shooters by acquiring Nikola Mirotic from New Orleans.
The Celtics? Well, they stayed put, content to wait until the summer to pursue their chase of Anthony Davis – with a wink-wink from Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge that they’d have more to offer in the offseason when they’re allowed to make a move.
Until then, you can make the argument the Celtics aren’t exactly loving the ones they’re with and that they’re ignoring clear-and-present threats in their own conference with the playoffs looming.
“It’s tough because you go on Twitter and Instagram and TV and all they talk about is what could happen, what’s gonna happen,” Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, a top prospect in the presumed Celtics-Pelicans discussions, told Yahoo Sports. “As much as possible, you gotta focus on what’s for sure and what’s certain and what’s right in front of us.”
Opportunity is in their grasp, just as it was Thursday. If Al Horford or Marcus Morris Sr. had been able to grab the late rebound – or if the Celtics didn’t allow the nearly dead Lakers to pick themselves up from an 18-point second-quarter hole – the result would’ve been different. And if the Celtics played the season like the favorites they’ve been purported to be, perhaps their Eastern rivals wouldn’t have made such strong pushes in February to get to June.
“I thought the basketball gods rewarded the right team,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “I hate to say that, but we had a chance to wrap the game up with a rebound.”
Lament as Stevens might, the basketball gods treated a national TV audience with glimpses of why these Celtics can be just as dangerous in the playoffs and so damn maddening at the same time. They have depth and, at times, a suffocating defense. They possess the creative shot-making of Kyrie Irving. Tatum and Jaylen Brown have shown growth and maturation.
And yet they still lost.
Lakers guard Rajon Rondo (center) celebrates his game-winning shot with teammates LeBron James and Kyle Kuzma. (AP)
Even though LeBron James looks to be shaking off the effects of the most impactful injury of his career, he’s also still the game’s most irresistible force. Against the Celtics, he did what was necessary to bring the Lakers back from the brink of embarrassment.
“I am working back and getting better and better every single minute,” he said.
In a 42-point loss to the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday, the Lakers’ young players performed as if the weight of the world was on their shoulders. Late in Thursday’s game, they looked emboldened by the atmosphere – or simply relived the deadline had passed.
Kyle Kuzma was every bit Tatum’s equal, scoring 25 and hitting a triple with 19 seconds left to give the Lakers a one-point lead. Brandon Ingram cut to the basket at opportune moments, scoring 11.
Guys who weren’t good enough for the Pelicans to want in a trade for Davis – or stable enough to keep the Lakers afloat in James’ absence – stepped forward on this night. They did just enough to set the stage for Rondo, whose name was also included in one of the Lakers’ reported offers for Davis. Rondo also has long known the business side of the NBA from his days with the Celtics.
“I’ve been written off since Day One. I’ve never let that bother me,” he said. “They say all cream rises to the top and that’s what I focus on.”
Rondo had played good games, even great ones, in the building he called home for the franchise he helped make a champion in 2008. But this was a signature moment for him.
Rondo came oh-so close two years ago – two jerseys ago – as a member of the Chicago Bulls. He went from alpha dog to scapegoat to catalyst in 2017 and was on the verge of knocking out the top-seeded Celtics in the first round by engineering a 2-0 series advantage.
He remembers yelling to his teammates, “They’re quitting, they don’t want it” in the third quarter of the Game 2 victory, ignoring the throbbing of his broken right thumb that would cost him the series and sweet revenge.
“I broke it good, too,” he said.
But this night might’ve been worth the wait. Two nights earlier, Rondo had watched almost helplessly as the Pacers stomped the Lakers, their fans taunting L.A.’s younger players – players who had been swept up in a tug of war of trade speculation between the Lakers and Pelicans.
“With everything we’ve been through, teams would be coming after us,” he said.
Instead, the Lakers have given themselves a chance for new life, along with some sense of toughness. If nothing else, it will be hard to find a team outside of Oakland who wants to do battle with a healthy James and, to a lesser extent, playoff Rondo, in a two-week series.
And even in defeat on this night, Irving’s late-game heroics can thwart any personnel move if the Celtics are right.
“I was happy. Myself and everybody is still here,” Tatum said. “I understand and see all the moves everybody made. We’re happy at a chance at this.”
That chance made for some beautiful basketball amidst way too much noise on Thursday night.
And then Rondo quieted it all, the sweet sound of silence.
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