The Celtics could have gone 2-7 or 7-2 this preseason, and ultimately it wouldn't have mattered much either way - when the dust settles, there's no way you can rate the team's performance this October. The only letter grade you can give them is an I for "incomplete," and that's fine. This team is still young, it's still coming together and it's still waiting for the return of a four-time NBA All-Star in Rajon Rondo.
We knew that all along. The cloud of Rondolessness was hanging over the Celtics all month, as expected, and it was difficult to make heads or tails of the team's rocky preseason schedule. Yes, the Celtics lost seven of nine games, but they did it with their most important player watching from the sidelines.
They say preseason basketball is about forging your team's identity, but it was hard for the Celtics to do anything of the sort with Rondo on the bench.
Rondo, for his part, has been cheering his teammates on the whole time, and he said after tonight's preseason win over the Brooklyn Nets that he's been encouraged by the team's progress.
"We're getting better," the injured point guard said in a postgame news conference. "Guys are still learning rotations, but they're very open. If we continue to grow and keep an open mind, then we'll be better off than a lot of people expect. I'm looking forward to the challenge myself."
The Celtics won their preseason finale, 101-97 over the visiting Brooklyn Nets, thanks to a complete ensemble effort. Five C's finished in double figures, led by Brandon Bass and Avery Bradley with 16 each, and Vitor Faverani had a monster game defensively with seven rebounds and six blocks.
Just as it has all preseason, this team made it clear that there would be no one guy leading the charge. Beating the Nets was a group collaboration, and the regular season will be one as well.
"I think that's who we are," coach Brad Stevens said. "I think that's who we have to be. We've got to be more of a collective unit than individuals. I think these guys believe that, and I think we really showed that with a lot of our play during the preseason."
That's the Celtics' identity - at least temporarily. Of course, when Rondo returns from his ACL tear and resumes his role as the team's ball-dominant point guard, everything may change. But for now, the 27-year-old veteran (relatively speaking) is happy to play his role as a de facto assistant coach. With Avery Bradley and Phil Pressey in place as the team's two substitute point guards, Rondo can serve as a key advisor.
"I just try to be there on the sidelines and give them as much advice as possible," Rondo said. "They don't mind the criticism. I try to stay as positive as possible, but I also want to tell those guys exactly what I see out there on the floor, and they can take it. Not a lot of young guys can do that. They're very open-minded, and I think they'll be in this league for a long time."
"He wants to see us win," Pressey said of Rondo. "He has a competitive mindset, and he's always helping us get better. He always wants us to win. He's already helped us out, but when he gets back, we're only going to be better."
For now, the Celtics are content to build on their successes with the talent they have on hand.
"I thought we did some good things," Stevens said, summing up the team's preseason. "I still think we've got a lot to work on. More positive than negative, and we can move forward."
Added Rondo: "You can never underestimate our guys' heart. We have a lot of guys that are up for the challenge, and I'm sure we'll do well."