ATLANTA – Talk about a tough playoff opener for the Boston Celtics.
One game, possibly two big losses.
There was the score, of course, which went in favor of Atlanta. With Josh Smith scoring 22 points and grabbing 18 rebounds, the Hawks built a big lead early and held on for an 83-74 victory in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference playoffs Sunday night.
But what happened in the hectic final minute could have a huge impact on Game 2, and possibly the entire series.
Boston star Rajon Rondo objected to a foul call on one of his teammates, chest-bumped the official who made it, and was quickly sent to the locker room. Now, all the Celtics can do is nervously await the likely wrath of NBA Commissioner David Stern, who's never been too lenient on anyone striking his refs.
"I didn't intentionally chest-bump him, but that's what it appears to be," Rondo conceded.
The Hawks, who led by as many as 19 in the first half, were clinging to a four-point lead when Rondo lost his cool with 41 seconds remaining. Boston's Brandon Bass was called for a foul on Smith tussling for a loose ball, with both players sprawled on the court out beyond the foul line. Rondo screamed at official Marc Davis, who called a technical. Rondo then bumped Davis with his chest and was ejected without hesitation.
"It's out of my control," said Rondo, who up to that point had been a huge bright spot for the Celtics with 20 points and 11 assists. "Obviously, I want to be there for my teammates, but other than that, it's out of my control."
Lobbying for leniency, Celtics coach Doc Rivers said he doesn't think Rondo deserves a suspension.
"I'm always worried, but I would be surprised if that happens," Rivers said. "I thought Rondo was walking toward Marc, and Marc turned back toward him, and that's when Rondo bumped him. ... That's all it was, in my opinion. But we'll see."
Rondo had a similar take.
"Obviously I was upset about the call and I said some words to Marc. I deserved the first tech," Rondo said. "As I was walking, I thought he stopped. My momentum carried me into him. I even think I tripped on his foot."
At the beginning, the Hawks looked much quicker and faster than the aging Celtics. With every starter outside of Jason Collins contributing at least four points, Atlanta raced to a 20-6 lead with the game just over 5 minutes old. The Hawks twice pushed the margin as high as 19 points and settled for a 49-35 edge at halftime.
Smith totally outplayed Boston's Kevin Garnett over the first two quarters, going into the break with 15 points, 11 rebounds and two assists. Garnett had only two points on 1-of-9 shooting.
"He was an animal," Atlanta coach Larry Drew said of Smith. "When he's playing with that energy, he just makes us so much better."
Smith had to carry the load. The Hawks' other big gun, Joe Johnson, had a miserable night with 11 points on 3-of-15 shooting, committing more turnovers (four) than he made field goals. He was 0 of 9 from 3-point range.
The Hawks got sloppy with the ball and made only 19-of-54 shots after their blistering performance in the opening quarter. That allowed the Celtics to edge back into the game, and it looked as though they might just pull off the comeback until Rondo's big blunder.
Smith said he was definitely fouled as he scrambled for the loose ball with Bass.
"That was the right call they made," Smith said. "I'm not sure what happened with Rondo. That will be up to the league to see what he did wrong. You never know what's going to happen, but we'll definitely factor him in going to tomorrow."
Garnett bounced back to put up 20 points and 11 rebounds. Paul Pierce had only 12 points, going 5 of 19 from the field and missing all six of his 3-point attempts.
"For us to win, I have to be a better player," Pierce said. "I was a really big culprit."
Both teams were short-handed.
Celtics guard Ray Allen missed a playoff game for the first time in his career, watching from the bench in a suit and tie because of an ailing right ankle. He would've already had surgery if it was earlier in the year, but the 36-year-old member of Boston's Big Three is hoping to heal in time for possibly his last hurrah in Beantown.
The Hawks, meanwhile, started third-stringer Collins at center. Al Horford missed most of the year with a pectoral injury and has been ruled out for the entire series, and the guy who took his place, rugged Zaza Pachulia, went down late in the regular season with a sprained left foot.
Now the big question is: Will Rondo be available for Game 2?
"I don't think it was on purpose," Pierce said, "but it's up to the league."
NOTES: Allen and Pachulia are both listed as day-to-day. ... The Hawks have never beaten Boston in the playoffs since moving to Atlanta in 1968, losing six straight postseason meetings. ... The teams met four times in the finals when the Hawks were based in St. Louis. Boston won three of those series. The Hawks' only playoff win over the Celtics was a 4-2 triumph to capture the title in 1958.
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