BOSTON -- The National Basketball Association body pretty much always is a flawed vehicle by this time of the season. Ankles have been turned. Knees have been wrenched. Fingers -- hold still now -- have been slid back into place. If a famous basketball name awakens and doesn't feel a twinge, an ache, an indication of pain somewhere on his long frame when he steps from his over-sized bed after 40-plus games and countless practices, he probably should be considering another line of work because he has spent too much time on the bench.
The normal day for the normal NBA star begins with the word "ouch." That was why Rajon Rondo wasn't worried.
"Twenty-five minutes before the game, he was still in the lineup," his coach, Doc Rivers, said after the Boston Celtics had outlasted the Miami Heat, 100-98, Sunday in double overtime in an afternoon of high drama at the TD Garden. "He'd gone through our shoot-around. He was wearing one of those ice pads on the back of his leg. He said his hamstring was bothering him a little bit."
No problem. Everybody always has something that hurts. … Rondo, who is slender, active, always in the air, landing at all sorts of angles, usually has more things that hurt than most. …
"Have Doc (Brian) McKeon take a look at it," Rivers had told his All-Star point guard. "Just to make sure."
Twenty-five minutes before the game was when the results of that look came back. The doctor had sent Rondo to New England Baptist Hospital for an MRI on his right knee. No, Rondo would not play today. The chances were -- and this was news the doctor delivered to the coach and not the patient -- that he would not play for any more days this season. He probably had suffered a torn ACL, just about the worst knee injury possible.
"The doctor wanted to wait for the MRI results before he told Rondo," Rivers said. "But he was pretty sure. So I knew before Rondo, before anyone."
And that was that.
* * *
Rivers did not think twice about what to do next. He kept this information to himself as he delivered his pre-game talk to his team.
"I just didn't think it was any time to tell any of our guys," he said.
He switched into coach mode, running through the file cards in his mind that deal with contingencies. Play without Rondo? Yes, here it is. Courtney Lee would become the starter and Leandro Barbosa would have much more time on the floor and the first unit, the starters, would play the way the second unit has been geared to play without Rondo. Got it? The offense would move more to an outside game. Spread out. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett would become more important in moving the ball and. …
"I was just trying to think straight during the game," Rivers said.
Two big stories were supposed to dominate all attention. The first was the Celtics' attempt to stop a six-game losing streak that had brought them three games under .500 and close to desperation. The second was the return of 37-year-old shooting guard Ray Allen, who had taken his services to Miami in the off-season after five successful seasons with the Celtics. It was the old Benedict Arnold comes back to Boston passion play. Would the people love, hate, be a mix-master of emotion? What?
Now this third story took control.
Rondo is the energy in the Celtics operation. Voted by the fans to the All-Star team for the fourth time this season, the 26-year-old point guard is the young talent between aging superstars Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. He is flighty, flamboyant, never dull. He is the NBA assists leader, a nightly threat for a triple double, maybe the most interesting player in the league if not the most consistent. The Celtics offense has been designed for him.
"He's proved he's the best player on the team and he's earned the respect of his teammates and coaches," general manager Danny Ainge said at the start of this season. "That's a big step. We're excited for him."
By halftime, the game tied at 45-45, a buzz somehow had materialized that Rondo would be out for the season. Where did it come from? It was just there. Rivers had said nothing. The Celtics had said nothing. The press box still was filled with twitters and speculations.
The running calculations on Allen's reception (early boos, later cheers, then boos every time he touched the ball) did not matter. The game did not matter The Rondo story was everything, even though the man himself apparently still didn't know the whole story.
He was back at the Garden for the second half, but didn't have the results of his MRI. Jackie MacMullan of ESPNBoston.com saw him in the hallway outside the Celtics locker room and asked about the reports of a torn ACL. He said he didn't feel bad.
"Could I be walking around like this with a torn ACL?" MacMullan wrote that he asked next.
The answer soon arrived from Dr. McKeon. Surgery would be necessary. Recovery and rehab will take an indeterminate amount of time, certainly more than six months, probably somewhere between nine and 12 months.
And that was that.
* * *
He sat in street clothes at an odd little table in a corner of the arena as the game proceeded through those double overtimes. ABC television cameras spread his picture across America along with the news of his injury. It seemed everyone knew the story now except his teammates as they ran up and down the floor, outlasted the Heat and King LeBron and D-Wade and the returning Ray when Shayne Battier's three-pointer at the final buzzer missed its mark. This was the best win of the season for the Celtics. They came storming off the floor and happily mugged Rondo on the way out and they still didn't know.
Paul Pierce, last-minute hero with a 22-foot pull-up jumper and then a foul shot, was delayed. He did an interview with sideline reporter Doris Burke. She asked a first question about Rondo being out for the year with a torn ACL. What would the future hold? Pierce's face went into a scrunch of astonishment.
"Oh, my God," he said.
The rest of the team learned the news in the locker room. The celebration for that best win of the season lasted approximately two minutes. Rivers, accompanied by Rondo, told the other players what had happened. Crazy stuff. He thought he had pulled his hamstring against the Atlanta Hawks in the fourth quarter on Friday night. Wasn't even sure when he did it. Still doesn't hurt very much.
How do you figure?
"Pretty emotional," Doc Rivers said, describing the scene.
"Complete shock," teammate Avery Bradley said. "He was going to try and play tonight. Rondo's tough, man. You couldn't tell that he was hurt. He was getting treatment, but Rondo doesn't show it. He just goes to battle. We love going to battle with him every single day. He gives his all.
"It was hard. I could see it on his face. You didn't know what he was going to say. When he said it, everybody's head just went down. We went from cheering to being sad."
The questions arose immediately. How would the Celtics adapt? (Rivers said he hoped someone in the locker room would step up and become a star. He did not know who that would be.) Would general manager Ainge blow up the roster, trade for draft picks and surrender the season? (He was non-committal.) What about Rondo? (Rivers said a recovery like the one running back Adrian Peterson had with the Minnesota Vikings would be just fine.)
Biggest question. How do you figure?
A pain in the morning…
An MRI just after noon…
Five hours after the day started, no more than six, the whole world had changed. And that was that.