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Return to Boston Takes Physical, Emotional Toll on Rondo

Rajon Rondo was emotionally and physically exhausted in his first return to Boston since being traded to the Dallas Mavericks last month.

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Rajon Rondo was drained. The enormity of his return to Boston had taken a toll on him two weeks after being traded to the Dallas Mavericks.

As he sat at the podium for his postgame press conference, he admitted he was physically and emotionally tired. Addressing the media at a table draped in green with the Boston Celtics backdrop behind him, the scene looked so familiar yet out of place at the same time.

Rondo had played his entire career for the Celtics prior to the December 18 deal, which sent him and Dwight Powell to the Mavericks in exchange for Brandan Wright, Jameer Nelson, Jae Crowder, two draft picks and a $12.9 million trade exception. On Friday he came back to the arena he had called home since 2006 as an opponent, an unknown feeling that was hard to handle.

“That was a tough game to get through,” he said.

The TD Garden crowd greeted Rondo with a standing ovation during starting lineup introductions. After the first quarter, in which he scored 15 points, the Celtics recognized him with a video tribute set to Coldplay’s “A Sky Full of Stars.” Rondo didn’t watch much of the montage. Those memorable images could have been too much.

“It was a big game and it was already emotional enough,” Rondo said. “I just wanted to stay locked in, listen to coach in the huddle and then obviously go out and say ‘thank you’ to the fans.’ So I wasn’t too keyed in on the video. I watched, I saw a couple glimpses, but I was just trying to stay focused.”

Rondo is like a human on/off switch. He has a knack of stepping up his game on the big stage regardless of his previous performances. Rondo entered Friday’s game averaging 9.3 points, 7.0 rebounds and 10.1 assists. He left the court having posted 29 points (including a career-high five treys), six rebounds and five assists in the Mavericks’ 119-101 victory. He had not scored more than 25 points since January 18, 2013.

“He played against the Celtics for the first time without wearing the ‘Celtics’ on his chest and he was out there to seek and destroy,” said Jared Sullinger.

Leading up to the game, Rondo put in an extra hour-and-a-half of work following shootaround on Friday morning. He took advantage when Dirk Nowitzki was double-teamed and credited Monta Ellis for getting him the ball. Rondo scored the Mavericks’ first 10 points of the game, including a pair of three-pointers.

“If you have a homecoming game, it’s either a complete disaster or it’s you’re on fire. It seems to be no in between,” said Nowitzki. “He was on fire. … I’m proud of him. It’s got to be a hard situation to be in.”

This type of night wasn’t a given for Rondo when he began his career. He was passed over for 20 players before he entered the NBA as the 21st pick. He landed on the Boston Celtics via a trade with the Phoenix Suns as a backup, a rookie from the University of Kentucky who had to wait his turn for minutes. Rondo came off the bench behind Sebastian Telfair and Delonte West until he made his first start on February 2, 2007, and even then he didn’t take over the role for another month.

The Celtics’ acquisitions of Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett in the summer of 2007 changed the course of Rondo’s future. He was a second-year player on a team of veterans, a bright young talent surrounded by proven All-Stars who were hungry to win a championship. They accomplished it in just their first season together with Rondo running the floor.

From there Rondo developed into an All-Star himself. He pulled off shocking passes and connected for assists with startling court vision. His basketball IQ was undeniable, and even though he struggled offensively he found crafty ways to be effective on the court.

Rondo’s career was sidetracked by an ACL injury in January of 2013. By the time he returned a year later, the Celtics were a different team than when he had left. His veteran leaders were gone. The team was entering a new phase. He became the captain and face of the organization. Those days of long playoff runs were behind him.

The trade to the Mavericks has rejuvenated Rondo. They are contenders and have the pieces to fight in the competitive Western Conference. It is an opportunity Rondo has yearned for since winning it all in 2008.

“I’m very blessed to be playing basketball again,” he said. “I took a long time off for my ACL injury and I think I took basketball for granted up to a certain point, being able to go out there every night and do what I love to do. I don’t know if I was able to show it as much here while I was a Celtic, but now I say I’m still just very humbled and blessed to be playing basketball. [It’s] something I love to do every night. So I don’t take it for granted, and this is how I play the game now.”

The Mavericks left Boston Friday to move on to their next game in Cleveland against the Cavaliers, marking the end to Rondo’s emotional day. The player who entered the Garden for the first time as a backup rookie exited as the storyline of the evening.

Rondo didn’t start his career with the Celtics as a star, but over eight seasons later, he was welcomed back as one.

Jessica Camerato is a bilingual reporter who has been covering the NBA since 2006. She has also covered MLB, NHL and MLS. A graduate of Quinnipiac University, Jessica is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association and the Association for Women in Sports Media.

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