ATLANTA From one perspective, the Atlanta Hawks looked younger and more athletic, led by forward Josh Smith's dominant showing, and ran the Boston Celtics out of the gym, until escaping late when Boston briefly made a game of it.
From the view of Boston coach Doc Rivers, the Celtics won the final three quarters of the game after a poor start, until the bitter end and it was bitter. With 41 seconds left, guard Rajon Rondo, who was Boston's best performer on the evening, received two technical fouls, the second for bumping an official, which could cause him to miss Game 2 on Tuesday, allowing the Hawks to ice an 83-74 victory on Sunday in Game 1 at Philips Arena.
Whatever the point of view, those who had penciled in Boston in the second round might want to get their erasers ready. From their series four years ago when the Hawks came in as a lowly eight seed with a sub-.500 record and the Celtics champions to be entered as a heavy favorite but lost each of the three games at Philips, the Hawks own a measure of confidence against this particular foe.
"This is just one game," said Smith, who had game-highs in points (22) and rebounds (18), sounding mature from the podium while adorned in a bow tie and a pair of stylish glasses. "You know that they're going to make adjustments going into the second game and we got to be able to try and come out with the same momentum, the same energy.
"I saw a couple of seats that were open tonight. If we could fill those up, that would be great, so, you know, we'll definitely need the crowd with the home-court advantage. They were great tonight and we're going to definitely need them throughout the whole series."
Smith, 26, has impressed in his eighth season, as he has arguably been the Hawks' top player during a season in which the Hawks have been beset by injuries to key players. Smith helped to compensate on Friday for the fact that the Hawks played without either of their top two centers, perennial All-Star Al Horford (torn pectoral muscle) and his capable understudy Zaza Pachulia (sprained left foot). Atlanta coach Larry Drew called Smith a "monster" on Friday.
He earned Rivers' praise, too, even if the Boston coach thought his team's defense was too soft on Smith.
"Listen, he's a pro," Rivers said. "If we're going to guard him the way we guarded him tonight, he's going to have a big series."
Conversely, as age has helped the Hawks in some ways, it has not improved the Celtics over the last four seasons. They entered this game without guard Ray Allen, who has a sore right ankle. Kevin Garnett finished with 20 points but at halftime he was 1-for-9 from the field for two points, allowing the Hawks to build a 14-point lead upon which they coasted to the finish. And Paul Pierce most played on the perimeter and finished with 12 points on 5-for-19 shooting.
Now, they face the prospect of Rondo sitting out the next game. He finished with 20 points on 10-of-18 shooting, 11 assists to only one turnover with four steals and four rebounds.
"We're always worried," Rivers said of the looming threat of suspension, to be decided by NBA Commissioner David Stern in conjunction with executive vice president of basketball operations Stu Jackson, who handles discipline. "But I would be surprised."
With 41 seconds left and the Celtics still with a chance, the game and perhaps control of the series unraveled for Boston. Down 78-74 and with the Hawks in possession, a loose ball ensued. During the scramble, Smith dove to the floor and grabbed the ball, drawing a foul call on Boston's Brandon Bass Drew called it a great play.
Rondo went to argue the call with referee Marc Davis and received a technical. Within a fraction of second, he bumped into Davis' turned back and got shown the door. The Hawks made three of the four free throws they were awarded as a result of the calls, including two by Smith, and it was game, set and match.
"I thought Rondo walked towards Marc and Marc kind of turned around and they bumped and once you bump him, they're going to throw you out," Rivers said, "but I thought it was more -- I thought Rondo was walking towards him to complain, which is your right. I thought Marc stopped, turned towards Rondo. They bumped into each other. Once he got thrown out, you know, you might as well keep talking, if you know what I'm saying. So that's all it was in my opinion, but we'll see."
Rondo said he tripped on Davis' foot.
"I was upset about the call and I said something to him," Rondo said. "As I was walking, I thought he stopped and my momentum carried me into him. I even think I tripped on his foot. I didn't intentionally chest bump him. It's out of my control. Obviously, I want to be there for my teammates but other than that I have no control right now."
He does not have control and his team might not either. The Hawks had trouble winning in Boston in recent years, but as long as they maintain that home-court advantage, they won't need to.
Things can change in this series. Rivers did not rule out Allen's return and now Boston will need him more than ever.
But after Game 1, it looks like the Hawks' series to lose.