ATLANTA - Most of the time his mouth never stops running. During practice. During shootarounds. After games. Rajon Rondo is constantly chattering, the prime instigator, confidently ribbing his teammates. It’s his way of leadership, his way of injecting his personality into his team.
His mouth, and pure emotion mixed with some arrogance and overconfidence, has gotten him into trouble on more than one occasion. So his teammates were hardly surprised - rather disappointed - at his actions during Game 1 of the Eastern Conference first-round playoffs against the Hawks.
Rondo was furious that official Marc Davis awarded the ball to the Hawks when television replays showed that Josh Smith - not Rondo - knocked the ball out of bounds late in the fourth quarter. And moments later, Rondo’s anger turned to rage when he charged Davis after a foul call on Brandon Bass and used his chest to make contact with the referee.
The NBA suspended Rondo for Game 2, and his teammates, who knew the penalty was coming, were expecting to play perhaps the most important game of the past year without him.
Inasmuch as the Celtics try to avoid adversity and drama, they get stuck in it. Their plan was to arduously work toward the postseason as a darkhorse, overpower Atlanta with execution, then move to a potential second-round showdown with the Chicago Bulls - without making a peep on the national landscape.
Monday morning, Paul Pierce and Doc Rivers were peppered with questions about Rondo, and the team and its fans waited anxiously for that 5:02 p.m. e-mail from the league announcing Rondo’s suspension. The Celtics were in the spotlight again, for all the wrong reasons.
They were embarrassed in Game 1 by the interior dominance of Josh Smith, outside shooting of Kirk Hinrich, and a productive bench that outclassed its counterparts. And then Rondo lost control and suddenly the Celtics are in big trouble.
Once again the Celtics have to deal with adversity during the Big Three Era. Ray Allen is already a major question, uncertain if he will play Tuesday night because of bone spurs in his right ankle and Rondo, the league’s assist leader who had collected 10 or more assists in 25 consecutive games, can not play.
They are accustomed to such circumstances. The Celtics’ brass realized their attempt at anonymity would be short-lived. The pressure to perform will be heavy, and a series loss could be the end of the Big Three Era.
“If Rondo’s not there, not only am I going to have to step up, but a number of guys are going to have to step up,’’ said Paul Pierce, who missed 14 of 19 shots in Game 1. “We’ve got guys who have shown they’re capable and able step up when he’s not out there. Obviously somebody’s going to have to take on the point guard responsibilities. We’ve been prepared to play without him. We’ve been prepared to play without a number of guys. But that’s not an excuse. It’s Game 2 and it’s a game we have to have.
“It’s big, but it’s a seven-game series. It’s tough when you go down 2-0. So we’re going to have more of a sense of urgency.’’
The lack of it in Game 1 was disturbing and an example of how the Celtics seem to spark their own drama. They were expected to make a statement in Game 1, and they certainly did that. But their statement was distorted. All of their issues from the first half of the season were revived, and now they are forced to play with desperation.
“We’ve gone down this road before, with injury, we played well in that stretch,’’ Rivers said. “This is a resilient basketball team. That’s what we’ve been all year. I don’t know whether we are going to win or lose tomorrow but I can guarantee you we’ll be ready to play.’’
With that bright smile and engaging demeanor, Rivers has convinced Celtics fans on many occasions his team will overcome its self-generated issues and he has been correct most of the time. And he understands that his team plays better under such circumstances.
The Big Three doesn’t do things easy, such as losing three road games to the Hawks in 2008 before surviving a Game 7, or losing two consecutive games after taking a 3-0 lead against Orlando in 2010 before holding on in Game 6.
They thrive on doing it the hard way. But there comes a time when age and a worthy opponent are too much to overcome. The Celtics face a critical game without their talkative floor leader and perhaps without the game’s greatest 3-point shooter.
But they remain confident enough from past experiences to stay composed and focused.
“We pay everybody. I say that all the time and I say it as a joke but I mean it,’’ Rivers said. “We pay everybody. We just don’t pay five or six guys. We pay them to be ready. Someone is going to have to step up for us.
“Someone asked the question why was [Rondo] involved - because he’s into the game. He’s a fighter for his team. You didn’t want him to go that far, obviously. It’s who he is. But it’s also what makes him great.’’