The Boston Celtics lost more than a game on Saturday, they lost their leader, point guard Rajon Rondo.
Rondo will be on the sidelines on Tuesday for Game 2 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals in Atlanta. The dynamic quarterback was ejected late in the Celtics' 83-74 Game 1 loss to the Hawks for making contact with referee Marc Davis and was suspended for one game by the NBA on Monday.
"Obviously, from a competitive standpoint we are disappointed with the league's decision to suspend Rondo," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "He plays a valuable part in our team's success. We accept the punishment and will use it as a learning tool for our players."
Rondo, who was tossed with 41 seconds remaining in Game 1 for chest bumping Davis following a foul call on Brandon Bass, finished with 20 points and 11 assists.
"As I was walking I thought he stopped, my momentum carried me into him," Rondo said of the chest bump. "I even think I tripped on his foot. I didn't intentionally chest bump him, but that's what it appears to be."
The league obviously did not accept that explanation and whether intentional or not, touching a game official isn't tolerated by the NBA. Boston will be squarely behind the 8-ball tonight, aiming to avoid an 0-2 deficit without arguably its best player.
"I can't allow that," NBA commissioner David Stern said in Indiana on Monday when talking about Rondo's suspension. "If we don't protect our officials in this fast-paced game with very large players, we've lost a lot in my mind."
Atlanta's Josh Smith was the best player on the floor in Game 1, posting 22 points and 18 rebounds, as the Hawks hung on to defeat the Celtics in the opener of the set.
Smith became the first Hawk to register 22-plus points and 17-plus rebounds in a playoff game since Moses Malone had 24 points and 17 rebounds in Game 4 of a first-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks in 1989.
Jeff Teague added 15 points and six rebounds, while Kirk Hinrich nailed four three-pointers en route to 12 points for Atlanta, which fell to Boston in seven games the last time these two combatants met in the 2008 East quarterfinals.
Kevin Garnett netted 18 of his 20 points in the second half for the Celtics, who trailed by as many as 19 points. Paul Pierce had just 12 points on 5-of-19 shooting.
The C's were a dismal 0-for-11 from beyond the arc in Game 1.
Boston used an elongated 23-9 surge that spanned between the third and fourth quarters to get back into the contest.
"We knew they were going to be able to calm their nerves down and be able to get back to the way they play basketball," Smith said of Boston's comeback.
Teague's right-wing triple and floater, sandwiched around Garnett's jumper, made it 78-70 in favor of Atlanta with 1:58 to play.
But after Garnett's layup and Paul Pierce's jumper whittled the deficit to four with 1:01 left, the game turned ugly as Rondo lost his cool.
Following a scramble for a loose ball, Bass was whistled for a foul on Smith. Rondo argued with Davis, who quickly called a technical, essentially sealing the game for the Hawks. Rondo, the NBA's assists leader, then bumped him with his chest and was subsequently tossed.
Joe Johnson split the technical free throws and Smith made a pair from the line for an 81-74 lead and Boston was done.
"We didn't feel the pressure of needing to get a bucket, that's just us being able to be in the playoffs for multiple years and understanding situations," Smith said of Atlanta's mindset when the Celtics charged back into the game.
Boston did manage to go 8-5 without Rondo in the regular season. Second-year pro Avery Bradley, who has been starting at shooting guard in favor of banged- up veteran Ray Allen, will likely slide over to take Rondo's place.
Allen, meanwhile, missed the opener, his 10th consecutive game overall, with an injured right ankle that will likely require surgery after the season. The sharpshooter remains day-to-day going forward but he is unlikely to play on Tuesday.
"If Ray is not ready, he's not ready," Rivers said.
The Hawks have their own injury problems. Two-time All-Star big man Al Horford has missed most of the season recovering from surgery to repair a torn left pectoral muscle and his replacement in the starting lineup, Zaza Pachulia, has missed the last eight games dating back to the regular season with a sprained left foot. Third-stringer Jason Collins, who has six points and five rebounds in Game 1, continues to start.
In the playoffs, this rivalry dates all the way back to the 1956-57 season when the Hawks called St. Louis home. Since moving to the Peach State in 1968, however, the Hawks have never beaten the Celtics in the postseason, losing six straight series (1972, '73, '83, '86, '88 and 2008.)
Boston also won two of three over the Hawks in the regular season and split a pair of games at Philips Arena.
Game 3 of this best-of-seven series is slated for Friday in Boston.