For Celtics, so bad it was good

ATLANTA -- Well, that couldn't have gone much worse for the Boston Celtics. And yet maybe that's the silver lining.

Just about everything that could have gone wrong for Boston did during Sunday's 83-74 loss to the Atlanta Hawks in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series at Philips Arena.

Ray Allen wasn't able to suit up; the Hawks hit everything they put up in the first quarter and Boston did the exact opposite; the Celtics finally made a feverish late-game charge only to watch Rajon Rondo get ejected and face a possible suspension for Game 2.

And yet, amid all the commotion, the Celtics nearly stole a game they had absolutely no business winning and, despite the frustrations, the team rallied around the notion that it's merely one game -- as abysmal as it looked for the visitors.

"It is disappointing losing, but I thought after the first quarter we really picked it up," captain Paul Pierce said. "You have to understand, this is a long series. You have to win four games, and we just have to learn from our mistakes: learn from the first quarter, learn from what we did better in the second and third quarters and bring that to Game 2, and learn to keep our composure."

Keeping their composure should be priority No. 1, particularly since that's what cost the Celtics in Game 1. After staring at a double-digit deficit for much of the night, Boston had rallied to within 4 with less than a minute to play when Rondo got the heave for vehemently arguing a foul call and (intentionally or not) bumping referee Marc Davis.

Boston had no chance from there. And the prospect of Rondo being suspended for Game 2 doesn't aid their cause moving forward.

Yet the rallying cry was, 'Hey, the Hawks are supposed to win these first two games. Let's get the next one.'

Whether or not the Celtics are sugarcoating things, it's hard to argue with the mentality. Game 1 was a disaster and there were about 15 times the team could have packed it in.

Instead, Boston made charge after charge, nearly digging out of the monster hole it created in the first quarter.

How big a mess was the first quarter? The Hawks made eight of their first 11 shots and were up 20-6 little more than five minutes in, sending the rare Hawks-heavy fan base into a tizzy. Kevin Garnett missed his first six shots, airballing a turnaround baseline jumper at one point, and the Celtics were down 17 with two minutes to go in the quarter.

Boston's defense tightened up from there, and the Celtics outscored Atlanta, 62-49, from that point until Rondo's ejection. But the damage at the start and finish spelled their demise.

That early hole put them in an early hole in the series.

"We missed a lot of shots in the beginning of the game," Rondo said. "I think it carried over to our defense. I think if we would have made some of the shots then obviously the lead wouldn't have been as big. Overall, we can't rely on our offense. We've got to start with defense. Coming out in Game 2, we have to put this one behind us.

"They did what they were supposed to do, they won one game at home. So we're going to try to steal Game 2."

Echoed Pierce: "We just can't panic. I mean, it's only one game, it's not the end of the world. You've got to win four. They just held down their home-court advantage in Game 1, so we get another opportunity in Game 2 to try to steal it before we go back home."

Pierce (12 points, 5-of-19 shooting including 0-for-6 beyond the arc) and Garnett made all sorts of boxing analogies and resorted to other cliches about going back to the drawing board and watching film to fix their errors.

Coach Doc Rivers may have summed it up best. "We didn't play like us," he said

But they did show familiar resolve. In fact, that sort of grit is exactly what Rivers likes best about his team. They seem to play best when their backs are against the wall -- and that's about where they'll find themselves in Game 2. Let's face it, the Celtics will be hard-pressed to win four of the next five if they stumble Tuesday.

Still, Rivers loves this group.

"I have a great group," he said. "I've said that all year. They are extremely coachable, they listen, they are very competitive. This team has shown resolve all year. There's been so many times where there's a fork in the road and we could have taken the other path, and I don't think this team has ever done it. We've had opportunities to take it and we haven't.

"That's why I like this team. It's not the most talented team we've had with the injuries and stuff. It's not the biggest team -- it's the smallest team we've ever had going into a playoff. But they are just a fighting group.

"You would like that type of group with you, when you're going into the playoffs."

Even when you're down 1-0 in the playoffs.