Beating the Hawks four times in seven tries was always going to be a tough task — a 60/40 proposition, on the happy side — but the Celtics have made it much more difficult, first by punting a chance at the end of the regular season to seize home-court advantage, and now with the suspension of Rajon Rondo for Game 2.
The Celtics have had some recent issues with referee Marc Davis, whom Rondo bumped with 41 seconds left in Boston’s Game 1 loss on Sunday. Rondo was already angry with Davis over a controversial out-of-bounds call that went against Boston with 2:14 left, just 14 seconds shy of the replay window. Davis then whistled Celtics forward Brandon Bass for a foul as he and Josh Smith scrambled for a loose ball at the end of crucial Atlanta possession. Bass appeared to foul Smith at least once on the play, meaning Davis made the correct call in choosing a foul over a jump ball — the call for which Rondo agitated.
Rondo is right in the sense that officials often call a jump ball in similar late-game situations as a way of shrugging their shoulders and staying out of things. But if you watch the replay, you can’t really fault Davis for his judgment. Nor can you fault the league for suspending Rondo for one game. The rule book is clear: Any player who makes “intentional” contact with an official gets an automatic one-game suspension. The only work the NBA had to do here is determine whether Rondo meant to bump Davis, and the more you watch the clip, the harder it is to buy the point guard’s explanation that it was an accident.
Rondo claimed after the game that he might have tripped on Davis’ foot in (aggressively) approaching the official, lost his balance and stumbled into Davis’ back. And if you freeze this video clip at the 1:01 mark, Rondo’s left foot indeed appears to make contact with Davis’ right foot. But then Rondo takes another step, and as he approaches Davis, he juts out his chest for what appears to be a pretty intentional bump.
By the letter of the law, the suspension is justified, and internally, Celtics higher-ups have to be shaking their heads over the team’s best young player — its main creative force — losing his temper and making himself unavailable for a crucial playoff game. Rondo’s loss of control is even more damaging, given Ray Allen’s questionable status due to bone spurs in his ankle and the revelation on Monday, via ESPN.com’s Jackie MacMullan, that Kevin Garnett is dealing with hip flexors so painful that he asked out of a late-season game against the Heat. Taking a 40-minute-plus player from a thin roster means guys who should really be end-of-benchers at this point — Keyon Dooling and Sasha Pavlovic — are going to have to play and at least hold the fort, and that the remaining core players might have to log more time than coach Doc Rivers might be comfortable giving them otherwise.
Boston can survive this, obviously. It went 6-2 when Rondo sat out eight straight games earlier this season because of a wrist injury, with Paul Pierce embracing the point-forward role and reviving his own season. The Celtics still have two great jump-shooting power forwards, guard Avery Bradley has played well for the most part and their defense alone will keep them in most games. Factor in the way Atlanta’s offense has collapsed against elite defenses, and it’s not hard to imagine Game 2 being in the balance with two minutes to go.
But Rondo’s absence increases the chances that Boston’s offense lays an egg too smelly for its defense to salvage. With Rondo on the floor this season, the Celtics scored 101.5 points per 100 possessions, about a point below the league’s average. Without him, Boston produced just 94.4 points per 100 possessions, a rate just above what the Bobcats’ league-worst offense produced for the season. Boston turned the ball over much more often when Rondo sat and put up lower shooting percentages from just about everywhere on the court. It also played at a much slower pace without Rondo, something that might come in handy during Game 2. Its fast-break game just isn’t the same without Rondo hitting Allen for trailing three-pointers, and playing the slow-poke Hawks in a super-slow duel might be the best way to keep the game close.
But creating any space at all will be difficult without Rondo to slide into creases, run the pick-and-roll and toss diagonal passes back to his big men. The Pierce/Garnett pick-and-pop will now become the focal point of the offense, and the Celtics will also run Pierce off screens at the elbow area. Atlanta would seem uniquely well-suited to defend those kind of plays. Joe Johnson is an exact match for Pierce and guarded him well in Game 1. Josh Smith and the surprisingly mobile Jason Collins were up to defending Garnett out to three-point line and in the post. The Hawks can also switch the Pierce/Garnett action without conceding all that much, given Smith’s ability to defend smaller players.
Atlanta just has a whole lot of size, and it can squeeze the court even more tightly by playing off Dooling, Bradley and Pavlovic. As Paul Flannery of WEEI.com notes here, the Hawks’ pesky guards have already given Bradley trouble when Rondo’s absence in a regular-season game forced Bradley to bring the ball up. Will Bradley be up for that share of point guard duty in Game 2? If he isn’t, it just means more of a burden for Pierce, or more playing time for Dooling. The Celtics also need more from Mickael Pietrus, who moved on some Boston possessions about as much as you and I did watching the game in our seats.
Losing Rondo also means losing the dynamic Rondo/Bradley backcourt. The Hawks can play Jeff Teague, Kirk Hinrich and Johnson together more if they wish, knowing that going with their smaller lineups does not carry the penalty of allowing Boston to comfortably play Rondo and Bradley together. The Hawks may still choose to go big for long stretches, with Johnson at shooting guard, but they have more flexibility now.
Again, it’s a survivable blow for the Celtics; almost anything is for one game. But it shifts the odds in Atlanta’s favor, and winning four of five is a difficult task for a team that struggles to score as badly as Boston does.