ATLANTA — Josh Smith scored 22 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, leading the Atlanta Hawks to an 83-74 victory over Boston in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference playoffs Sunday night, the final minute turning ugly when Celtics star Rajon Rondo was ejected for bumping an official.
The Hawks, who led by as many as 19 in the first half, were clinging to a four-point lead when Rondo lost his cool with 41 seconds remaining — and may have cost himself a chance to play Game 2 Tuesday night.
Brandon Bass was called for a foul on Smith tussling for a loose ball, with both players sprawled on the court out beyond the foul line. Rondo screamed at official Marc Davis, who quickly called a technical. Rondo then bumped Davis with his chest and was tossed out. A suspension could be coming, too.
Rondo scored 20 points and dished out 11 assists, but none of it mattered when he lost his cool. The Celtics not only lost this game, they might’ve lost their floor leader for the next one. He clearly stuck out his chest and struck the official, which will almost surely draw the wrath of NBA Commissioner David Stern.
“I deserved the first tech,” Rondo said. “I didn’t intentionally chest-bump him, but that’s what it appears to be. It’s out of my control.”
Getting in some immediate lobbying, Celtics coach Doc Rivers saw things a bit differently than the replay showed. Not surprisingly, he doesn’t think Rondo deserves a suspension.
“I’m always worried, but I would be surprised if that happens,” Rivers said. “I thought Rondo was walking toward Marc, and Marc turned back toward him, and that’s when Rondo bumped him. … That’s all it was, in my opinion. But we’ll see.”
The Hawks got off to a dazzling start, looking much quicker and faster than the aging Celtics. With every starter outside of Jason Collins contributing at least four points, Atlanta raced to a 20-6 lead with the game just over 5 minutes old.
With Atlanta’s backups on the court, the Celtics made a brief spurt at the start of the second quarter, slicing the Hawks’ lead to 33-24. That would be as close as they got until the fourth. Atlanta coach Larry Drew called a timeout, got Smith and Joe Johnson back on the court, and the Hawks quickly ripped off an 11-1 run to push their lead to 44-25. The home team led 49-35 at the break.
But the Hawks got sloppy with the ball and made only 20-of-60 shots after their blistering performance in opening quarter. That allowed the Celtics to edge back into the game, and it looked as though they might just pull off the comeback until Rondo’s big no-no.
Smith said he was definitely fouled as he scrambled for the loose ball with Bass.
“That was the right call they made,” Smith said of the potentially series-altering play. “I’m not sure what happened with Rondo. That will be up to the league to see what he did wrong. You never know what’s going to happen, but we’ll definitely factor him in going to tomorrow.”
Kevin Garnett bounced back from a miserable start to put up 20 points and 11 rebounds. Smith carried the Hawks on a night when Johnson managed just 11 points on 3-of-15 shooting.
Both teams were short-handed.
Celtics guard Ray Allen missed a playoff game for the first time in his career, watching from the bench in a suit and tie because of an ailing right ankle. He would’ve already had surgery if it was earlier in the year, but the 36-year-old member of Boston’s Big Three is hoping to heal in time for possibly his last hurrah in Beantown.
The Hawks, meanwhile, started third-stringer Collins at center. Al Horford missed most of the year with a pectoral injury and has been ruled out for the entire series, and the guy who took his place, rugged Zaza Pachulia, went down late in the regular season with a sprained left foot.
Pachulia famously went forehead-to-forehead with Garnett during the 2008 series, and the Hawks wondered how they would fare without the Georgian’s toughness. Just fine, it turned out.
The teams were much more closely matched heading into this series than they were in their last playoff meeting, an opening-round clash in 2008. That year, the Celtics won 66 games and were the top seed in the East, setting up for a run to their most recent NBA championship. The Hawks were the eighth seed, a team that went 37-45 and made the postseason for the first time in nine years. Still, they managed to push theCeltics to seven games.
This time, Boston won the season series 2-1, the three games decided by a total of 10 points, and Atlanta finished one game ahead in the conference standings to earn home-court advantage.
There was much talk about the matchup between Garnett and Smith, who had the best year of his up-and-down career after Horford went down. It wasn’t much of a contest in the first half. Even with an embarrassing pose on a 3-pointer from the corner that didn’t hit anything, Smith lit up the Celtics for 15 points, 11 rebounds and two assists by halftime. Garnett managed just two points on 1-of-9 shooting.
But Garnett turned it around in the second half, leading the Celtics back from the big deficit.
“We came out like our jerseys were going to win the game, because we’re the Celtics,” Rivers said. “You’ve got to play to win the game.”
Now the big question is: Will Rondo be allowed to play in Game 2?
SPURS 106, JAZZ 91: This was not another early playoff letdown by the San Antonio Spurs. For the first time in four years, they won a series opener.
But more important to them was Tony Parker looking like his old postseason self.
Putting together his best playoff game since 2009, Parker scored 28 points and the top-seeded Spurs erased four years of putting themselves in 0-1 holes to start the playoffs, beating the Utah Jazz 106-91 in Game 1 of their first-round series Sunday in San Antonio.
It marked the 11th straight win for the Spurs dating to the regular season, and kept the Spurs from being hounded by the same doubts that emerged this time last year when they also entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed, only to be ousted by Memphis.
“I think everybody knows what happened last year,” Parker said. “Everybody’s motivated this year, but we don’t even talk about it.”
What Parker — and coach Gregg Popovich— have talked about is the All-Star’s unremarkable series against the Grizzlies a year ago. Popovich told Parker that he thought his star point guard tried harder with the French national team last summer than in the playoffs, and Parker vowed to return with a different attitude.
He’s making good on it so far.
The Jazz, meanwhile, hung close for three quarters in the franchise’s first playoff game without Jerry Sloan since 1988. Paul Millsap led Utah with 20 points, but the Jazz couldn’t keep up when the NBA’s top 3-point shooting team began burying them with three in a two-minute burst to finish the third.
“The biggest thing we’re going to learn is the different ways to guard the pick and roll, and what worked and what didn’t,” Jazz guard Gordon Haywood said. “We can’t let them get to the paint as easily, because it’s kick out 3′s and dump down’s and whatever. So we have to do better at that.”
Game 2 is Wednesday in San Antonio.
Hayward scored 17 points and Al Jefferson had 16 for the Jazz, who present the Spurs problems with a bigger frontcourt but contributed to their own doom with 16 turnovers.
“But we are a young team,” Millsap said. “Things like that happen.”
Tim Duncan added 17 points and 11 rebounds for the Spurs, who despite boasting the No. 1 seed for a second straight year hadn’t won a Game 1 in its last six postseason series. The last one was a double-overtime win over Phoenix in 2008, which was also round the last time that the Spurs entered the playoffs as healthy as they are now.
But they didn’t leave this game entirely scot-free.
Center Tiago Splitter sprained his left wrist and didn’t return after scoring four points in 8 minutes. The severity of the injury wasn’t immediately known, but even with arguably the deepest Spurs team in the Duncan era, San Antonio would sorely miss their 7-footer.
Parker shook off a slow start to shoot 10 of 19 from the floor. He also had eight assists in his best playoff game since scoring 43 against Dallas in 2009.
“We needed this one. We played a pretty good game. It wasn’t brilliant,” said Spurs guard Manu Ginobili, who had seven points. “But it was steady and we kept fighting. It took us awhile, but we broke it in the fourth quarter.”
The Jazz may be bigger, but are well short on playoff experience compared to the Spurs. To that end, Utah coach Tyrone Corbin put Josh Howard back in the starting lineup for Game 1, even though the Jazz rolled into the postseason winners of five in a row with DeMare Carroll at small forward.
Howard had knee surgery in March and returned Tuesday against Phoenix. Whatever concerns Corbin harbored of Howard disrupting Utah’s recent chemistry were allayed by his six playoff stints in Dallas, including his starting role in the Mavericks’ run to the 2006 NBA Finals.
“There was no apprehension,” Corbin said. “We know who he is. We’re going to need all the experience we can get.”
Yet Howard didn’t deliver any instant veteran dividend. He was 0 for 4 and played 16 minutes, sitting out much of the second half.
The Spurs made their own lineup tweak. Boris Diaw started alongside Duncan in the frontcourt, making for a pairing that undersized San Antonio could stick with for the playoffs. Diaw arrived in San Antonio in March with a dismal defensive reputation, but coach Gregg Popovich said before the game that his newest big man has turned out to be a better than first thought.
Not that Diaw’s scoring touch wasn’t needed. While Duncan labored through a rough first half — scoring 7 points on 3 of 8 shooting, including Derrick Favors eliciting more than few “oohs” for swatting one of Duncan’s would-be dunks — Diaw also scored 7 in the half while missing just one shot.
Duncan, who turned 36 this week, finally found his groove in the second half. He was 7 of 14 from the floor in his first game in nearly a week after Popovich gave his Big Three an extended rest to ensure their health for the playoffs.
Notes: The Jazz fell to 1-4 against the Spurs this year, with their only win coming in Salt Lake City when Duncan, Ginobili and Parker didn’t play. …The Jazz shot 4 of 13 from behind the 3-point line.