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The early birds got the win

By Gary Washburn
Globe Stafff / April 30, 2012
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ATLANTA - This is what happens when you stumble into a playoff game as if you spent the night before on Bourbon Street.

The Celtics were themselves for the final three quarters Sunday night at Philips Arena, playing a tight defensive game as Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett spearheaded the offense. But a slow start against the Hawks cost them Game 1 of their playoff series, and Rajon Rondo is likely headed for a suspension.

Celtics coach Doc Rivers’s decision to rest his players for essentially the final four regular-season games was critical in Sunday’s 83-74 loss. The team sleepwalked through the first quarter, allowing 31 points as the Hawks built a lead they never relinquished.

If there ever was a case of too much rest and a sense of entitlement, it was in this game, when the Celtics looked as if they were ready to punch the Hawks in the mouth and instead were flat-out embarrassed and outhustled in the first 12 minutes. And that is why their valiant attempts to rally fell short, and in that last-minute frustration, Rondo, protesting a call, bumped official Marc Davis and was ejected with 41 seconds left.

So the series takes on a completely different complexion for the Celtics, who now have no room for error.

“I don’t know, we kind of eased into the game,’’ said Pierce, who never got untracked, missing 14 of 19 shots in scoring 12 points. “It’s hard to tell because we [usually] establish ourselves early defensively and we definitely didn’t do that. They got every loose ball, they got every 3-point shot. They got everything they wanted in the first.

“It was like a boxing match. You sit there and you’ve got your guard up and then take your guard down and then you punch, and then you’re like, ‘OK, we’re in a fight.’ You’ve got to realize we’re in a fight from the jump, that’s all there is to it.’’

In one critical fourth-quarter sequence, Josh Smith missed a 20-footer and three Celtics surrounded the rebound. Mickael Pietrus ducked when Pierce tipped the ball, and Tracy McGrady scooped up the gift and dunked it for a 71-59 lead.

When asked if he was disappointed by the start because of the Celtics’ experience, Pierce said, “It’s disappointing losing. I thought after the first quarter we really picked it up. But you gotta understand, this is a long series. You have to win four games and we have to learn from our mistakes. And we have to learn to keep our composure.’’

The players were eerily reminiscent of those January Celtics, who entered games out of shape and uninspired and didn’t become engaged until the second half, when it was on many occasions too late. After spending their post All-Star break games jumping on opponents and playing with leads, the Celtics then regressed, and Ray Allen’s absence because of an ankle injury only added to the upheaval.

While Allen missed the final nine regular-season games, there was the natural assumption that he would return for the playoffs. Even though Allen needs postseason surgery to remove bone spurs, it was thought he would find a way to play. But after working through shootaround and his pregame routine, he sat on the bench, impeccably dressed in a suit, his ankle unable to withstand the rigors of a playoff game. He did not offer any more insight after the game when asked for a comment.

Rivers refused to rule Allen out for the series, but his absence created chaos with the Celtics’ bench rotation. A little more than five Sasha Pavlovic minutes with two turnovers was enough for Rivers, and that experiment was over. Allen’s absence also placed added pressure on Pietrus, who is still not 100 percent after his surgically repaired right knee swelled, and Keyon Dooling, who is not a dependable scorer.

Meanwhile, Garnett appeared rusty after sitting out two of the final three games.

“We started off slow and missed a lot of shots that we normally hit,’’ said Garnett, who missed his first six shots. “They came out firing. We’ve got to start off better and I’ve got a lot of confidence in us when we come shooting the ball, having a better Game 2. We’re going to go back and watch film and be ready.’’

It wasn’t that the Celtics did not take the Hawks seriously, but Rivers chose to give his veterans extended rest at the end of the regular season, and it was no shock they appeared slow and erratic in the first quarter. The gamble Rivers took by essentially conceding home court to the Hawks and sitting Pierce, Garnett, and Greg Stiemsma didn’t get off to a good start.

And it was no surprise that Pierce and Garnett went a combined 13-for-38 shooting in Game 1.

The Celtics were depending on guile, savvy, and experience to carry them through a lack of precision and athleticism in the early going. But it didn’t work Sunday, and now Rondo is likely to be suspended for Game 2.

Despite the up-and-down season, Rivers has said he is confident his team has the mental makeup for another long playoff run. Perhaps the first quarter Sunday night was an aberration.

“You know what? Sometimes you’re too intense, overhyped,’’ Garnett said. “I can only speak for myself. I was very intense and didn’t really center myself with any of the things that I know to do. That’s on me and I’ll get better as the series goes.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe.

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