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 — and may have cost himself a chance to play Game 2 Tuesday night.
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 quickly called a technical. Rondo then bumped Davis with his chest and was tossed out. A suspension could be coming, too.
Rondo scored 20 points and dished out 11 assists, but none of it mattered when he struck the official. The Celtics not only lost this game, they might've lost their floor leader for the next one. The point guard will almost surely draw the wrath of NBA Commissioner David Stern.
"I deserved the first tech," Rondo said. "I didn't intentionally chest-bump him, but that's what it appears to be. It's out of my control."
Getting in some immediate lobbying, Celtics coach Doc Rivers saw things a bit differently than the replay showed. Not surprisingly, 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."
The Hawks got off to a dazzling start, looking 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.
With Atlanta's backups on the court, the Celtics made a brief spurt at the start of the second quarter, slicing the Hawks' lead to 33-24. That would be as close as they got until the fourth. Atlanta coach Larry Drew called a timeout, got Smith and Joe Johnson back on the court, and the Hawks quickly ripped off an 11-1 run to push their lead to 44-25. The home team led 49-35 at the break.
But the Hawks got sloppy with the ball and made only 20-of-60 shots after their blistering performance in 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 no-no.
Smith said he was definitely fouled as he scrambled for the loose ball with Bass.
"That was the right call they made," Smith said of the potentially series-altering play. "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."
Kevin Garnett bounced back from a miserable start to put up 20 points and 11 rebounds. Smith carried the Hawks on a night when Johnson managed just 11 points on 3-of-15 shooting.
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 centre. 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.
Pachulia famously went forehead-to-forehead with Garnett during a 2008 series, and the Hawks wondered how they would fare without the Georgian's toughness. Just fine, it turned out.
Of course, the teams were much more closely matched heading into this series than they were in their last playoff meeting. In 2008, the Celtics won 66 games and were the top seed in the East, setting up for a run to their most recent NBA championship. The Hawks were the eighth seed, a team that went 37-45 and made the post-season for the first time in nine years. Still, they managed to push the Celtics to seven games.
This time, Boston won the season series 2-1, the three games decided by a total of 10 points, and Atlanta finished one game ahead in the conference standings to earn home-court advantage.
There was much talk about the matchup between Garnett and Smith, who had the best year of his up-and-down career after Horford went down. It wasn't much of a contest in the first half. Even with an embarrassing pose on a 3-pointer from the corner that didn't hit anything, Smith lit up the Celtics for 15 points, 11 rebounds and two assists by halftime. Garnett managed just two points on 1-of-9 shooting.
But KG turned it around in the second half, leading the Celtics back from the big deficit.
"We came out like our jerseys were going to win the game, because we're the Celtics," Rivers said. "You've got to play to win the game."
Now the big question is: Will Rondo be allowed to play in Game 2?
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 post-season 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 a 4-2 triumph to capture the title in 1958.
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