WALTHAM, Mass. — When Rajon Rondo first saw his teammates again after Game 2 of their playoff series against Atlanta, he shook their hands and thanked them for pulling out a victory in his absence.
“He was very happy, thanking guys as we were getting on the bus,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said on Thursday before Boston’s final practice for Game 3 of the first-round series against the Hawks. “I don’t know if he would have done that two years ago. He would have been thankful, but he would have been in the back of the bus with his head down, down on himself. … That’s a step there.”
The Celtics beat Atlanta 87-80 in Game 2 to tie the series at one game apiece, giving them a chance to take control in Games 3 and 4 in Boston on Friday and Sunday. And they did it without Rondo, who was suspended for Tuesday night’s game for bumping the referee when a call went against him in the final minute of the series opener.
Rondo would not say where he watched the game, except to say it was close by. (Players are not allowed to be in the arena while serving a suspension.) Although Rivers said the point guard was waiting to shake their hands as they boarded the bus; Rondo said he gave Garnett a hug as he came out of the tunnel.
“(I) told him, ‘Thank you.’ I appreciate everything you guys have done for me,” Rondo said before practice on Thursday. “Obviously, they won it for themselves. But they told me, ‘We got this one for you.’ That felt good. It felt like I was a part of it. It changed the series.”
Paul Pierce scored 36 points and added 14 rebounds in Game 2 to make up for the absence of Rondo and Ray Allen, who hasn’t played since April 10 because of bone spurs in his right ankle. Allen said Thursday he was going to try to practice, and Rivers said there is a chance he could play in Game 3.
“I think he has a better shot,” Rivers said, adding that he would limit Allen in practice to avoid wasting his best moments on a workout. “I’d rather take 10 minutes of him on the floor than not.”
The Hawks have injury problems of their own, with forward Josh Smith fighting a strained tendon in his left knee; he is considered day-to-day. Atlanta is already missing its top two centers, Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia.
Rondo emerged as a star in his second season, helping Boston win the 2008 NBA title, and since then he has been considered as important to the Celtics’ fortunes as the New Big 3 of Pierce, Allen and Kevin Garnett. But he remains moody and erratic, so Rivers wasn’t entirely surprised when Rondo chose to take out his frustrations on referee Marc Davis in the final minute of the Game 1 loss in Atlanta.
“I don’t think he did it selfishly. It just turned into a selfish act,” Rivers said. “I always think his intentions are right. But that doesn’t mean he does the right things all the time. I’d rather have a guy that had good intentions than guys that are just thinking about themselves.”
Rondo averaged just under 12 points and 12 assists this season, with 20 and 11 in the series opener, which Atlanta won 83-74. The Celtics had closed the deficit to four points when, with 41 seconds left, Rondo reacted to a foul call against Boston by chest-bumping Davis. He was given two technicals and ejected; the Hawks made three of four free throws and the Celtics didn’t score another point.
Avery Bradley played point guard on Tuesday night, scoring 14 points with three assists in a game that was dominated by Pierce.
“We still got the win,” Rondo said. “You learn from your mistakes. It’s not the end of the world. I only got suspended one game. The great thing about it is the series is 1-1 and we’re in Boston.”
Hawks coach Larry Drew tried to warn his players before Game 2 that the Celtics were capable of winning without Rondo. Now that he’s back, he expects them to be even more potent.
“We know what we’re going to be facing with him back,” Drew said. “He’s the head of the snake. He makes so many things happen. … So we have to be prepared for that.”
Rivers said he didn’t feel the need to lecture Rondo, who was also suspended for two games in February for throwing a ball at the referee, about dealing with the officials: “I don’t think ‘the talk’ has to be made.”
“The way to do it the best is to come out in Game 3 and play a terrific game,” Rivers said. “You want to make sure he doesn’t try to do too much, just do what he does. Sometimes I think when guys miss a game, they come out the next game and they want to really help the team instead of playing their game.”
Rondo said he wouldn’t try to change who he is.
“I don’t have anything to prove. Why would I have anything to prove? I just want to win. That’s it,” he said. “I try not to let my emotions get the best of me, but I’m an emotional player. I try to keep my composure and my emotions to myself, but it was a heat-of-the-battle moment and I wanted to win. We make mistakes. I’m not on trial or anything.”