For the Celtics, the blueprint was obvious in this first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks. The Celtics needed to split the first two games in Atlanta and then hold serve in Boston, building a 3-1 series lead that ultimately should have required no more than six games.
But as the saying goes, the best laid plans often go awry.
And in this case, blame it on Rajon Rondo.
The Celtics and Hawks will play Game 2 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series tonight in Atlanta, and as we all know, the Celtics will do so without their multi-talented point guard. With 41 seconds left in Sunday's maddening Game 1 loss to the Hawks, Rondo indisputably bumped referee Marc Davis, a rather careless and foolish lapse in judgment that earned Rondo a one-game suspension.
And so now, on a night where there might have been every reason to feel good about the Celtics' chances, the team must play its most important game of the season to date without a point guard.
Before we get into the particulars of tonight's game, let's all agree on the magnitude of Rondo's blunder. Quite simply, this was the kind of mistake that can cost a team a series and, perhaps, a trip to the NBA Finals. That is not an exaggeration. If the Celtics lose tonight and ultimately drop this series in seven games, Rondo may have cost himself (and the Celtics) one final run at a championship in what could very well be the final joint crusade for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.
Think about it. The Celtics played the Miami Heat three times last month and won all three, the most impressive a 115-107 victory in Miami that was the team's best win of the season. Derrick Rose is out for the playoffs and beyond. (For that matter, so is Dwight Howard.) The Eastern Conference is as open as open could be, with only the Heat serving as a legitimate obstacle to the Celtics along the way.
Even then, if things line up right, the Celtics wouldn't have to face Miami until the conference finals.
Rondo's petulance now has interfered with all of that, putting undue pressure on the Celtics to win Game 2 against an athletic Atlanta team that went 23-10 at home this year. (The Celtics were 24-9). Anyone who has paid attention to the NBA can tell you that the Hawks have been a far different team at home than on the road over the last five years, something the Celtics obviously learned in the spring of 2008, when the Hawks forced the Celtics to seven games in the first round despite being the eighth and final seed in the East.
The Celtics ultimately won that series -- and the NBA championship -- because they had home court. And while they may not need home court now as much as they did in 2008, Rondo has made the challenge infinitely more difficult for them.
Can the Celtics still win this game? Of course, though doing so may require them to run their offense through Paul Pierce (5 for 19 in Game 1) with Avery Bradley or Keyon Dooling (or both) manning the "point." Pierce, for his part, was 0 for 6 from 3-point distance in Game 1 -- the Celtics were 0 for 11 as a team -- and Rondo's absence likely means that Pierce won't get many chances to spot up from long distance and redeem himself in Game 2.
Meanwhile, minus Rondo, Bradley gets considerably less effective, too. And so a Celtics half-court offense that can become stuck in the mud anyway now has the chance to positively calcify.
Beyond Rondo and Pierce, particularly with Allen still sidelined, the key performer for the Celtics in this game is obvious: Garnett. The cornerstone of this Celtics five-year Celtics renaissance -- then and now -- Garnett shot 1 for 9 in the first half of Game 1 and was thoroughly outplayed by Hawks counterpart Josh Smith. If that happens again in Game 2, the Celtics are almost certain to come back to Boston facing a 2-0 series deficit, leaving an aged club with no wiggle room entering the middle of the series.
Remember, folks: the Celtics are old. Any game they can avoid playing now is another they may be able to play later. If the Celtics can keep a series to six games instead of seven, that is less tread on the tires of Garnett and Pierce, at least. In Game 1, Doc Rivers' rotation really consisted of no more than seven players, Dooling and Sasha Pavlovic contributing a whopping six minutes each to the cause.
That is yet another area in which Rondo's bratty behavior strikes them, stripping Rivers of the player who should have been on the floor the longest. (Rondo led the Celtics in average minutes during the season.)
Obviously, the Celtics must approach this game devoid of the bitterness that might have existed after game 1. Garnett, for one, seemed rather perturbed that Rondo took himself out of the mix for Game 2, but these Celtics have proven to be nothing if not tough and resilient. They can still win this game without Rondo. They can still take control of the series. They can still make one more run at the Finals, a task that has suddenly grown considerably more difficult than it should have at this early stage.
But if the Celtics do--- at least for now -- it will be in spite of their enigmatic point guard, and not because of him.
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