The Celtics were seconds away from possibly salvaging an atrocious Game 1 playoff performance against Atlanta that highlighted so many of their usual deficiencies -- rebounding, lack of depth, poor transition defense, stagnant offensive sets, reverting to "hero" ball to force points onto the board -- when Rajon Rondo decided to really ratchet up his team's degree of difficulty.
Boston's Young Turk got himself ejected from the game with 41 seconds to go and -- as a result of the one-game suspension levied against him on Monday for bumping referee Marc Davis -- has left his team woefully shorthanded for Game 2 on Tuesday in Atlanta.
I really can't decide which was more disappointing: Rondo becoming unglued over a questionable call on a messy scrum for a loose ball, or his insistence after the fact he didn't bump Davis on purpose.
Look, maybe Davis should have whistled for a jump ball before he called Brandon Bass for a foul. And yes, maybe Davis was a tad quick in slapping a T on Rondo after he approached him with a few choice words.
Too bad. Maintain your composure. That's what great players -- and great teams -- do.
Referees don't like to be shown up by players. You can be sure each and every one of them (including Marc Davis) took note of the video showing Rondo throwing a ball at official Sean Wright back in February. When you do that, your leeway shrinks. Let's agree Rondo's leeway with NBA officials has now officially evaporated.
Naturally, his veteran teammates are irked with the latest developments regarding their point guard, but neither Paul Pierce nor Kevin Garnett is in a position to say much. They, too, have been ejected from playoff games, as recently as 2011 (Pierce) and 2010 (Garnett).
Lucky for me this incident happened when it did. I was just about to publish a warm and fuzzy story on how the team chemistry had been so nicely recalibrated this season. The Celtics' locker room has been solid. Players have melded so nicely, Pierce told me the roster had "an '08 feel to it."
Not long after Miami eliminated Boston in the playoffs last spring, Celtics boss Danny Ainge and coach Doc Rivers huddled and agreed their roster needed to undergo some changes.
Both the players and the front office had grown weary of Glen "Big Baby" Davis and Shaquille O'Neal carping at one another. Baby also infuriated his bosses with his blatant disregard for the weight clause in his contract. And, although nearly everyone was fond of Delonte West and appreciated his full-throttle effort on the court, they went to bed with one eye open, fretting over what late-night phone call regarding their mercurial guard would (again) disrupt their nucleus.
Thus, revamping their team chemistry became a priority. They swapped Davis for Bass, a quiet, serious, professional young forward. They brought in Mickael Pietrus, a pied piper of positive thinking and boundless energy (think M.L. Carr with 3-point range).
Yet the most important addition in the locker room appeared to have been point guard Keyon Dooling. His results on the floor have been mixed, but his influence on Rondo as a trusted ally was immeasurable.
It has been well documented that Rondo struggles to coexist, at times, with his more celebrated teammates. He occasionally chafed when the Big Three overshadowed his accomplishments, and brooded when best pal Kendrick Perkins was dealt to Oklahoma City. Rondo needed a new confidant and Dooling, Rondo told me just before Game 1, had become that guy.
"Keyon is one of the best leaders I've ever been around," Rondo declared. "He tells me the truth. If I mess up, he lets me know. He's also very positive, very uplifting.
"Sometimes you play with guys who don't always want to see you do well. When they tell you something, you wonder where they're coming from, what their reasons are.
"But with Keyon, I never worry about that. He's going to give it to me straight, because he cares."
When Rondo drew a two-game suspension for throwing the ball at Wright in February, his veteran teammates went to him demanding a public apology. Feeling cornered, Rondo balked -- and that's when Dooling stepped in.
"I just told him, 'You hurt your family when you do stuff like [throwing the ball at a ref]. The [money lost due to suspension] comes out of your pocket. That's taking money away from the people you love,'" Dooling said.
"He listened because I was coming from a pure place. I want him to grow as a man.
"I set out to get to know him. I didn't listen to any of the other guys and their opinions of Rajon.
"I love the guy. I've made a friend for a lifetime."
Too bad your new friend didn't listen, huh?
Allen not the only one hurting
Rondo's suspension is hardly a death sentence for the Celtics, but it leaves a paper-thin roster even more vulnerable. Avery Bradley has been a revelation, a wonderful story -- as long as you don't ask him to play full time at the point. Now, because of Rondo's temper, the Celtics will have to ask him to do just that. You can be sure Atlanta's young backcourt will be pressuring him full court, which is why Pierce is already brushing off his point forward skills.
Before the playoffs started, Rivers confessed: "My only concern is we have no margin for error. Everyone has to play. Ray [Allen] has to play. [Greg] Stiemsma has to play. We don't have a cushion. In past years, if Big Baby didn't play well, Leon Powe could step in. If Sam Cassell couldn't get it done, Eddie House played. We don't have that luxury this year."
So now they will likely go into Game 2 with their best pure shooter in a snappy suit-and-tie ensemble and the NBA assist leader sulking next to him.
Boston's abysmal first quarter has led to the inevitable second-guessing on whether Rivers should have "rested" his key players down the stretch.
Let's get real here. Rivers didn't "rest" Allen. There's a realistic chance he may have played his last game in a Celtics uniform. For those of you who haven't experienced bone spurs, they feel like someone is stabbing you with a knife. Repeatedly. With vicious, pointed strokes. Oh, and the knife has been resting in a white hot flame.
Doc didn't "rest" Garnett, either. KG is hurt. He hasn't been 100 percent, truthfully, since he underwent knee surgery in May of 2009.
"He's never been the same," Doc conceded. "The last two years have been very difficult for him."
Garnett has come to accept the intermittent flaring of knee pain that has become part of his everyday NBA life. Yet it's the recurring pain in his hip flexors (a result of his slim frame and unusual gait) that cripples him when it flares up.
"The hip flexors are painful as hell," Rivers confirmed. "You see him rubbing it once in a while because it feels like it's on fire."
The prolonged lockout actually aided Garnett in that it provided him with a long stretch of rest. He's submitted an impactful season, particularly once Rivers moved him to the 5 spot, but the grind of the compacted schedule finally caught up to him. After the Celtics played 10 games in 13 days, Rivers noticed KG laboring in the April 18 game against Orlando.
"It concerned me," Rivers admitted. "I hadn't seen that in a while. After that I said, 'That's it. He's done.'"
That's why Garnett didn't suit up for that critical game in Atlanta in the final week that might have helped secure home-court advantage. KG was hurting so much last Tuesday he asked out of the Miami game, a rarity for the proud veteran who likes to play them all.
"I just admire the guy so much," Bradley said. "People have no idea what he goes through to play."
I asked Garnett about his hip flexors just before he left for Atlanta. He shrugged and said, "Pain is only what you tell yourself it is." When I shot him a disbelieving glance, he laughed, then added, "Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn't."
"I've endured it," KG said. "I deal with it. I prefer not to bitch or complain about it. Some days, it's a lot. But I'm managing. I'm ready to go, man."
Will his teammates join him? There will be pressure for Sugar Ray to give it a go Tuesday night. Even when he doesn't score, he is invaluable for the spacing and depth he provides. His best work this season has often been when he's serving as a decoy, curling off those screens with expert precision. When he does that, Atlanta has no choice but to account for him, which opens up the floor for everyone else.
But if Allen doesn't go, he should not be scrutinized. Ask Larry Bird about giving it a shot with bones spurs. He gamely played six games of the 1988-89 season before he succumbed to the pain and had surgery to remove the spurs from both heels.
If nothing else, this Celtics team will stay positive
No Ray and no Rondo is trouble, but, believe it or not, there were some positives that emerged from the Game 1 debacle. Once Boston clamped down and prevented Atlanta from running off every Celtics miss, baskets were far less fruitful for the Hawks.
The hot new stat floating about is the Celtics are the worst offensive rebounding team in history. Check the film. It's by design. They know they are too small and don't have proficient rebounders, so they rarely, if ever, even bother to crash the offensive glass. They have determined (correctly) it's smarter to get back and set their defense. It's like defensive indifference with a catcher who lets the base runner steal.
If you are Doc Rivers, your pregame pep talk will include the fact you were outscored 21-0 from the 3-point line and you were still in the game. Your bench was outscored 17-4 and you were still in the game.
But Pierce cannot afford to go 5-for-19 (0-for-6 on 3s) again. Bradley needs to overcome his "Gee-whiz-I'm-in-the-playoffs" wonderment and reclaim his moniker as a relentless defensive agitator and sneaky backdoor cutter. Bass needs to play bigger defensively so the Celtics' small ball lineup can do its thing.
And KG, painful hip flexors or not, needs to impose his will on the Hawks. He did an admirable job in the second half of containing the ever dangerous Josh Smith, who is in the midst of a career year, but when Garnett is on the other end of the floor and gets the ball on the baseline, and journeyman Jason Collins is the only impediment between him and the basket, a fallaway 20-footer isn't going to cut it. He's got to blow by Collins and score.
If nothing else, we know these "cagey" Celtics (don't you just love all the words that really mean "old"?) are resilient. They only deal in positive self-talk, which means even if they fall behind 0-2 in this series, they will be completely and totally convinced they will fix it when they return home to the Garden.
Maybe so. But the margin of error is too small to test that theory, and their Young Turk should know that.
Hey Rondo, we all know you want to be The Star of this team.
Then figure out a way to play in the games, instead of watching them.