Rarely can one game -- let alone one moment -- change the complexion of an entire series, but Atlanta's 83-74 win over Boston on Sunday might have done just that. The Celtics not only lost a game that was seemingly in their grasp, they likely lost their starting point guard for Game 2 and potentially longer.
After playing some of their best basketball of the season in the first half, the Hawks found themselves desperately clinging to a four-point lead with 41 seconds to go in the fourth quarter. That's when a scrum ensued around midcourt as Josh Smith and Brandon Bass pounced on a loose ball. With both players wrestling on the ground, Rajon Rondo was incensed when referee Marc Davis whistled Bass for the foul.
Rondo turned and screamed in the face of Davis, who quickly called the Celtic for a technical foul. But Rondo wasn't done making his point. Rondo barked again and then committed the ultimate sin in the player-referee relationship: He bumped Davis with his chest.
Rondo was immediately assessed a second technical and ejected from the game. The Hawks then sealed the game at the free-throw line after appearing to be on the brink of choking. Now, the Celtics are in a 1-0 hole that could quickly turn into a 2-0 hole if Rondo, as expected, is suspended for Game 2.
"Obviously, I was upset about the call," Rondo said. "I said some words to Marc. I deserved the first tech. As I was walking I thought he stopped and my momentum carried me into him. I even think I tripped on his foot. I didn't intentionally chest bump him, even though that's what it appears to be."
Rondo's far-fetched tripping excuse -- much like Metta World Peace's celebration alibi -- likely won't spare him from the NBA's wrath. If a player intentionally makes contact with a referee, it's an automatic suspension. And the only thing unintentional about Rondo's chest bump was the repercussions. Not only did he bump a ref, but he'll be punished as a repeat offender thanks to his two-game suspension that was handed down after throwing a ball at referee Sean Wright earlier this season.
When asked if he's worried about a suspension, a somber Rondo uttered a reply that, unlike the one he gave Davis, could barely be heard from five feet away.
"It's out of my control," Rondo said. "Obviously, I want to be there for my teammates, but other than that I have no control right now."
Unfortunately for Boston, Rondo did have control. He could have kept his composure and not bumped Davis. A first technical is understandable in the heat of the playoffs. A second technical is inexcusable and extremely costly. The Celtics nearly stole a game they had no business winning, and now they likely face the reality of a real theft -- the loss of their best player for Game 2.
"I guess the league has to see what went wrong or what happened in that type of manner, you never know what's going to happen," Smith said. "We definitely have to factor [that] in going forward tomorrow."
Before the ejection, Rondo did a masterful job of carrying the unusually complacent Celtics, asserting himself on offense with 20 points and 11 assists, his 25th consecutive double-digit assist game. With Ray Allen sidelined and Paul Pierce (12 points on 5-of-19 shooting) struggling, it was Rondo who did the heavy lifting against the red-hot Hawks.
Atlanta hit eight of its first 11 shots in the first quarter and stormed out to a 20-6 lead. Smith, who finished with 22 points and 18 rebounds and had a double-double by halftime, led the way for the Hawks and helped them increase their advantage to 19 twice.
"We outscored them for three quarters, but the margin they built up in the first was just too great," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "We pride ourselves on our defense, but we gave up 31 points to start the game on the road. It gave them confidence and it's very hard to shut off."
But the Celtics would mount a predictable comeback, fueled by Rondo and Kevin Garnett. After going 1-of-8 in the first half, Garnett responded with 18 points in the second. Rondo, who played an all-around excellent game that included four steals, kept the Celtics in it, pushing the ball on fast breaks and finding teammates for easy baskets.
When Paul Pierce drained a fadeaway jumper with 1:01 remaining, Boston had cut the lead to four. The once-hot Hawks shot just 35.3 percent in the final period, allowing the Celtics to climb back into a game that looked like it had been decided in the first half.
But then it was all squandered away.
There's a good chance Boston will have to play Game 2 without Rondo, a fact that's scary for the Celtics when considering he's the only person that kept them in Game 1. If the Celtics don't have their catalyst, they'll have a hard time beating a Hawks team that showed its potential Sunday.
The Celtics were perfect against Atlanta when trying during the regular season. Their only loss came on April 20, when Rivers decided to rest Garnett and Pierce while Rondo sat out with sore back. And even in that game, the Hawks only won by five.
Fast-forward nine days later and Atlanta is now in an enviable position against a playoff-seasoned team. Not only do the Hawks have the series lead and a favorable Game 2 approaching, but they also have the comfort of knowing the once-daunting path to the Eastern Conference finals no longer includes Derrick Rose. With the Bulls damaged and the starless Sixers striking little fear, a trip to the conference finals could be the reward of the winner of this series.
Few expected the Hawks to win Game 1, let alone make it look easy. The Celtics outclassed their first-round opponent in nearly every facet -- talent, experience and coaching to name a few -- yet they are the ones facing the 1-0 deficit and the challenge of playing Game 2 without their best player.
"We just can't panic," Pierce said. "It's only one game, it's not the end of the world. You've got to win four."
That much is true. But one game has unquestionably swung the momentum in the Hawks' favor, something they desperately needed against the Celtics.
It's unlikely Rondo's tripping excuse will hold up. Only time will tell if the Celtics do.