ATLANTA - The Celtics are down a game to the Hawks in the first round of the playoffs. And they could be down a point guard for Tuesday’s Game 2 as Rajon Rondo was ejected after bumping an official in the final minute of their 83-74 loss Sunday night.
Whether it was laziness, lethargy, or simply lack of commitment, the Celtics made a slow start to the postseason and did not recover until it was too late.
From the start, the Hawks were active, aggressive, alert. The Celtics were AWOL. The Celtics finally adopted a playoff attitude in the second half, pulling within 4 points of the lead in the final minute. But then, they lost Brandon Bass (fouled out) and Rondo, who made contact with official Marc Davis while disputing the call on Bass.
“I thought Marc Davis stopped and turned toward Rondo,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “They bumped into each other. Once you get thrown out you might as well keep talking. That’s all it was in my opinion, but we’ll see.’’
Rondo (20 points, 11 assists) generated most of Boston’s offense in the early going. But Rondo was unable to jump-start his teammates, though Kevin Garnett (20 points, 12 rebounds) finally heated up with a 7-for-10 shooting performance in the second half.
“I thought we were a first-option team for most of the game, and we’re not going to win a lot of games like that,’’ Rivers said. “If we’re not doing our stuff, I always think as a coach I’ve got to find more stuff for us to do or get us to do our stuff. Give them credit, defensively they were terrific.’’
There were signs the Celtics were going to be several steps behind the Hawks from the start. Joe Johnson got behind the defense for a layup on the opening possession 21 seconds into the game. And the Hawks continued to fly past the Celtics in leading by as many as 17 points in the opening quarter.
Boston’s reserves were similarly sluggish, producing only 4 points. The Celtics’ perimeter threat was minimal - they shot 0 for 11 on 3-pointers - and they were ineffective driving to the basket, finishing 10 of 13 from the line.
“We outscored them for three quarters, but the margin they built up in the first was just too great,’’ Rivers said. “We pride ourselves on our defense but we gave up 31 points to start the game on the road. It gave them confidence, and it’s very hard to shut it off.
“I never thought offensively we played well. We had very little ball movement. We have to do a better job moving the ball around on offense.’’
The Hawks led by as many as 19 late in the third quarter. Then Rondo fueled a 14-3 run, hitting three jumpers and a running hook, and feeding Bass to cut the deficit to 67-59. The Hawks called a timeout with 9:14 remaining, but Rondo squandered a chance to cut the deficit to 6. Jannero Pargo got a transition drive and Tracy McGrady dunked after three Celtics allowed a rebound to fall between them.
Garnett then converted two jumpers in a 50-second span, and two free throws out of a timeout as the Celtics pulled within 71-65 with 5:19 remaining.
Paul Pierce’s free throw cut the deficit to 5. Rondo then double-teamed Josh Smith, leaving Jeff Teague open for a 3-pointer and a 76-68 Atlanta advantage with 3:06 remaining.
Pierce pulled the Celtics within 78-74 with 1:01 left. Then, the Celtics knocked the ball away from Johnson, but in the scramble to recover possession from Smith, Bass was assessed his sixth personal foul. Johnson made one free throw and Smith (22 points, 18 rebounds) two for an 81-74 advantage.
“We never made one adjustment and we started playing like we can [in the second half],’’ Rivers said. “Like I said, I told our guys we can’t assume when we show up Tuesday that will happen.
“I thought [the Hawks] came out with the right attack mode. And I thought we came out thinking that our jerseys, we’re the Celtics - and you’ve got to play basketball.’’
Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at email@example.com.