ATLANTA -- Yes, the big story is that the Boston Celtics may have handed the Atlanta Hawks Game 2 by losing their minds at the end of Game 1. But before any of that happened, the Hawks had to take the opener.
And take it they did, in a way that was best exemplified on the play that everyone will be replaying all week. Before Rajon Rondo lost his mind and bumped referee Marc Davis, possibly earning a suspension, the Hawks had to win a scrum for a loose ball on the floor that resulted in Brandon Bass fouling Josh Smith.
Atlanta won Game 1, 83-74, by doing exactly that for 47 minutes even as their offense was stuck in a deep funk.
"We wanted to win the hustle game," said Hawks coach Larry Drew, and man did they ever. The Hawks couldn't make a shot after the first quarter, but repeatedly outhustled Boston to 50-50 balls and came out with dramatically more energy.
Smith was the catalyst -- "an animal," said Drew -- and his line was the end product of a classic Josh Smith night. You take the bad (needless long jump shots), with the good (pretty much everything else) and it adds up to an All-Star caliber player who swung the balance Sunday night. Smith finished with 22 points, 18 rebounds, 4 assists, exemplary defense and, er, a true shooting mark in the high 40s.
While you wonder if he'll ever get it on the jump shots -- he talked with a straight face about "not settling" after a game in which he took 11 long 2s -- the magnificence of the rest of his game tends to get lost in the teeth-gnashing throughout Philips Arena every time he tees up a J early in the clock. The Hawks were +17 with Smith on the court Sunday night and -8 in the five minutes they slogged through without him -- including a key stretch to start the fourth that let Boston get back in the game.
"Every now and then he'll take a crazy shot," Drew said, "which I'm willing to live with for all the things he does do well."
Moreover, Smith's jumper might actually have some value in this series. On a night where the two teams combined to shoot a hair less than 40 percent -- something we can expect to see all series based on the regular-season meetings between these teams -- Smith's 20-footers aren't as much of a liability.
Rivers, in fact, was upset that Smith's jumpers weren't more contested, especially in the first half.
At the start, Atlanta's energy advantage was particularly palpable. The Celtics stood flat-footed on the game's opening play while Josh Smith fired a touchdown pass to Joe Johnson for a lay-up, and the Celtics were down 14 a little more than five minutes into the game. The lead didn't get inside double digits until the fourth quarter, when Boston finally rallied.
"We came out thinking our jerseys were going to win the game," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "We didn't play like us."
But Boston did rally; Atlanta's offense locked up after the first quarter and Boston had cut the lead to its smallest margin since the first two minutes -- four points -- before Rondo's meltdown. Johnson was isolating on the wing and lost his dribble near the free-throw line, with Smith, Bass, Garnett and Rondo ending up in a scrum for the ball. Somehow Smith got the rock before any of the three Celtics did. Ultimately, Smith grabbed the ball and Bass grabbed him, or at least that's how Davis saw it.
"It was definitely a foul," Smith said of that fateful play. While he's technically correct, Chowderheads will note that refs call a jump ball nearly every time in that situation even if there was a foul. On the other hand, so it's a Smith-Bass jump ball. Who are you taking?
Perhaps Smith beating Bass to that loose ball (which he clearly did, even if you think Bass tied him up at some point afterward) was what sent Rondo over the edge because he'd seen it too many times already. Atlanta enjoyed a 50-41 rebound advantage, but if we'd had a separate loose ball tracker in the arena it would have been all Hawks.
Smith's energy helped Atlanta overcome a disastrous night from Johnson, who shot 3-for-15 with four turnovers and missed all nine 3-point attempts -- most of them wide-open looks that just rattled in and out. Several of those robbed Smith of assists, after deft crosscourt passes found Johnson open on the weak side.
Smith had plenty of help in the loose-ball department, of course. If it wasn't him, it was Ivan Johnson, or Jeff Teague, or Kirk Hinrich, or Jannero Pargo, or even the ghost of Tracy McGrady -- like when a committee of three Celtics somehow couldn't handle a rebound and he scooped up the leftovers for a dunk. It was one of five boards T-Mac had, two offensive, in just 14 minutes off the pine.
Another unexpected hero was Jason Collins, who started at center, played 32 minutes -- which he'd last done in December of 2010 -- and defended Kevin Garnett extremely well. Teague, meanwhile, scored 15 and was unaffected by the pressure of Boston's ball-hawking guard Avery Bradley. And Kirk Hinrich awoke from an offensive slumber to make four of his six 3-point tries, putting him in double figures for just the second time in 16 games.
Smith pointed out it was just one game, but it was a hugely encouraging one for the Atlanta side. Not only did they hold serve, but Rondo likely faces a suspension for Game 2, and could get multiple games as a repeat offender -- he earned a two-game ban earlier this season for throwing a ball at an official.
For Boston, meanwhile, one wonders how Ray Allen's absence impacts an offense that never got untracked -- even their big rally came in a quarter in which they mustered just 21 points.
"I never thought offensively we played well," Rivers said. "We were a first option team and a same-side team for most of the game."
The question, now, is what type of team they'll be for Game 2 with Rondo likely out. Just remember to credit Smith and the Hawks for helping to put them in that position.