WALTHAM - It's not as though Rajon Rondo wants to be on the trainer's table, switching between ice and heat on his bum right hamstring. If he could have, he would have played against the Lakers Sunday.
"The lineup card was already turned in," he said.
It's not as though Doc Rivers wants to see him there. The coach doesn't smile when he sees little holes poked into one of the most critical spots in his lineup.
"It means we're down another guard," he said. "We're thin at the guard position."
And that said, it's not necessarily the apocalypse. That would only be if Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, or Paul Pierce wound up on the table.
But it's still kind of a big deal.
Which is why, after feeling his right hamstring tighten up in the Celtics' 104-98 win over Utah last Saturday, Rondo thought twice about making his way back too fast. He'll wait until tonight's shootaround to decide whether he's healthy enough to play against Houston.
"I don't know if it's going to take away from my explosiveness when I accelerate," he said yesterday, after sitting out practice. "It kept me out a game, so it's definitely serious, but I don't want to try to rush back."
Rondo was always the X factor, even during the summer when Boston fans were so excited about the trades that made the Celtics instant contenders. The questions were about how he'd play with the new stars, how he'd handle the pressure of being the floor general, and whether he'd step up and take open jump shots since he'd suddenly find himself with tons of them.
So far, he's been more than serviceable, averaging 9.4 points, 5.3 assists, and 1.5 turnovers. The only point guard with fewer turnovers and more assists per game is Toronto's Jose Calderon (1.3 and 8.1).
"He's worked on his game and he's going to keep getting better," said Rivers. "But he's also playing with Ray, Paul, and Kevin, and that allows him to be freer and that helps big-time."
Against the Lakers, Tony Allen's fill-in job (16 points, 4 assists, but also 4 turnovers) was fine.
"I thought Tony did a great job," Ray Allen said. "I think Tony picked up where Rajon left off. I think we were a little unstable at times during that game. But we managed to make up for the void that we were missing."
Rivers mixed in Eddie House behind him, and the combination allowed the Celtics to be more physical on defense. But they still missed Rondo's particular strengths.
His eye for defenses is sharper, and while he admits his handle on the offensive sets isn't what he wants it to be, he's light-years ahead of where he was at the start of the season.
Instead of being in a situation where he's trying to get a player the ball, and knowing only one play that'll do it, he has four or five sets in his head that he's comfortable calling at any time.
Which led Ray Allen to say, "It's a long-term thing; you'll notice when Rondo's not in the lineup."
Rivers will acknowledge weakness outside of his three stars.
"If Kendrick Perkins goes down, we're thin at the 5; if Rajon goes down, we're thin at the 1," he said. "It's a delicate team. All teams are."
The biggest problem with being down a point guard is having House as the sole reserve, although Gabe Pruitt is also an option.
A few veteran point guards, Gary Payton and Travis Best among them, have already made rumblings that they're interested in joining the Celtics, but the squad can't necessarily look to the outside for a solution because any new player would have to learn the system, which is Rondo's strength.
"Rondo has a better grasp of the offense," Rivers said. "When we need a special set - we run a lot of out-of-timeout plays - you really can't [when he's out], for the most part. You just have to run what you already have in. So that limits you offensively."
It's only Year 2 for Rondo, but going from being the floor general for a bunch of young pups to being thrown into the mix with All-Stars looking for a title kind of forced the 21-year-old to play as if he's been in the league forever.
"I've grown a lot, but I've still got a lot to learn," Rondo said. "I'm just trying to learn as much as I can from those three guys and Coach Rivers. The more years I have under my belt, the more I will mature."
He won't fool himself into believing his role is bigger than it is.
"I'm a small piece," he said. "Just one of the 14 pieces trying to complete the puzzle this year."