Rajon Rondo wanted it to be a surprise.
The New Orleans Pelicans’ point guard made his debut in Monday’s win over the Atlanta Hawks, recovering from surgery on his repaired core muscle four days earlier than expected. And he kept his appearance under wraps as long as he possibly could.
The team switched Rondo’s status from “out” to “expected to play” just 30 minutes before tipoff, changing the tenor of the sleepy matchup to an anticipated affair.
“I was trying to make it like zero minutes (before tip),” Rondo said of Monday’s announcement. “It was just a feeling I had before the game. (Sunday) night, I got a good night’s rest, and so I was hoping to play (Monday) and see how my body responded.”
While he only logged 4 minutes, 56 seconds at the tail end of the first quarter, it marked a signal of progress for the Pelicans, who have won five of their past six games en route to an 8-6 record.
They’ll attempt to make it six of seven when they host the Toronto Raptors at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Smoothie King Center. New Orleans should benefit by getting a greater larger contribution from Rondo this time around.
His playing time restriction is increasing from six minutes to at least 14, coach Alvin Gentry said.
“It’s a small sample size (Monday), but we already know about him and who he is,” Gentry said. “We know what he brings to our team. We’ll play him a few extra minutes on Wednesday, maybe 14 but no more than 16. But it’s going to be an adjustment, and obviously he is going to have to get his basketball legs back under him.
“But we are very excited about having him back.”
And Rondo provided immediate evidence for the optimism in his first possession with the Pelicans. Fresh from the scorer’s table, he took a handoff from DeMarcus Cousins at the elbow and cut directly to the basket for an easy layup.
Minutes later, he assisted on two 3-pointers, displaying the floor-general abilities that made him a desirable target in free agency.
“He came right in and had that layup and made some great plays, including an assist to DeMarcus on a 3,” Anthony Davis said. “He pushes our tempo and pushes the ball up the floor while calling out sets and reading defenses. He knows what he needs to do to get guys open shots.
“He was the one who told me screen down for Darius (Miller), and that got Darius open for his first 3. It’s stuff like that — being a coach on the floor and reading stuff extremely well for us to get into our offense.”
Despite undergoing surgery Oct. 10 and being confined to a de facto coach’s role for the past month, Rondo said he’s watched nearly every piece of video available to him. The four-time All-Star is focused on learning the spots where he can help boost the team’s productivity, and it eased his transition back into the lineup.
But he also said he understands the process to get back into the regular rotation will be gradual, eventually ramping up to a full 30-plus minute load. After one game, though, it’s gone about as well as expected.
“I feel good,” Rondo said Tuesday. “I played just four minutes last night, so I expected by body to feel well today, and I do.”
Now the intrigue hinges on just how much can Rondo contribute upon his full-time return. New Orleans has averaged 18.7 turnovers over the past three games, struggling to take care of the ball despite shooting a red-hot 54 percent from the field during that span (second-best in the NBA).
“It’s great to get him in the flow of things,” Cousins said. “He’s a big part of this team. We can’t wait to get him back because he makes the game so much easier for everyone else when he’s out on the floor. I can’t wait until he’s 100 percent and he can go at it all the way.”