When the Celtics take the court tonight in Atlanta, their best player will be locked up in his hotel room.
This is not a good thing.
But it's also not a death sentence.
Here are 1000 scattered words, as the Celtics attempt to steal Game 2:
1. KG and Paul
Lost (or at least overshadowed) in Rajon Rondos Game 1 ejection was the play of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.
In KGs defense, he loosened up a bit as the game went on, but generally looked much closer to the guy we all had slated for retirement than the one who might break the bank in free agency. And Pierce was just bad, shooting 5-19 from the field and 0-6 from three. (The last time he took that many threes in a game without hitting at least one: February 2006). How much of that can be blamed on his sore toe? We don't know (yet), but with Rondo out and Ray Allen still a question mark, Game 2 falls on the shoulders of Bostons two remaining (with apologies to the Stiemer) Hall of Famers.
Either way, win or lose, KG and Pierce need to show some life and prove that there's enough left in that hip, or that toe, to compete at the highest level for the next few weeks. If not, the league might as well slap Rondo with a Metta World Peace suspension because it won't matter. As we learned in Game 1, Rondo's not nearly as effective when leading 1-on-4 fast breaks.
But as for tonight, it really comes down to KG and Paul.
Pierce will have to carry far more of the offensive load with Rondo out. The Celtics need the Captain to be a creator, a scorer, to bring the ball up and play consistent defense on a dangerous offensive player without getting tired or finding foul trouble. Oh, and he'll also be performing with Red Panda at halftime. It's a daunting task for Pierce. But we've seen him step into this role so many times over these last 14(!) years, it would be ridiculous to count him out now.
And the same goes for KG, but man, it was scary watching him move around like that on Sunday. Here's hoping he was just shaking off some rust.
I don't know what Larry Drew said before Sunday's game (or if he just had Ivan Johnson threaten to annihilate anyone who didn't go hard), but the Hawks came to play. They were locked in from the start, smacked Boston square in the mouth and maintained a mental and physical edge for almost the entire 48 minutes. And the question is: Will that carry into Game 2, or might the 1-0 advantage, combined with Rondo's suspension, mess with Atlanta's mentality?
Here's what Josh Smith had to say yesterday about Rondo:
Thats their energy guy, Smith said. Thats the head of the snake. Thats the guy that gives them emotion, that shares the ball around the horn, keeps everybody satisfied. Hes that guy that plays tough defense. They definitely miss him in the lineup when hes not in there. He does so much for that ball club. Theyre good enough to try to figure out a way to get wins, but with him theyre a lot better."
Now on one hand, Smith was certainly respectful, and smart enough to add that last part about the Celtics still being "good enough." But on the other, you can see the relief in his words. You know that somewhere in the back of his and all of Atlanta's head, they're looking at the Rondo-less Celtics and thinking: "They're nothing without him! We got them right where we want them!" It's human nature. And even if it only results in a slight dip in focus, the Celtics will take it.
The Hawks might not be quite as young as they were in 2008, but they still have a core of guys (Smith, Jeff Teague, Ivan Johnson and Marvin Williams) who are young and like Rondo have some growing up to do. And they've just encountered a huge psychological moment in this series. In one day, they went from playing the role of the heavy doesn't-have-a-chance underdogs to being one Rondo-less game away from having their foot on Boston's throat. Is Atlanta ready for that?
The pressure is all on the Hawks here.
Celtics Worst-Case Scenario: They lose, re-acquire their best player and head home for a huge game in front of one of the better playoff crowds in the business.
Hawks Worst-Case Scenario: They lose, and not only surrender home court advantage, but the Celtics just beat them without Rondo. Every ounce of Game 1 confidence has been extinguished, and now they head up to Boston for two games against a now-revitalized Celtics team playing in front of its home crowd and playing with a rested (five days off for that back!), pissed off and motivated Rajon Rondo. That's always a bad combination for the opponent.
The longer the Celtics can hang around, the greater this advantage becomes.
OK, one more random thought, as I grasp at ways for the Celtics to steal Game 2.
A couple paragraphs up, Josh Smith called Rondo "the head of the snake." And that makes sense. (Maybe not as much sense as KG saying that Rondo is "the head that makes the Voltron" but still an acceptable metaphor.)
Anyway, since Rondo is the head, you can bet that Atlanta has spent a ton of time working on ways to cut him off. In fact, they probably spent more time preparing and game-planning around Rondo than anyone on the Celtics roster.
Now, a majority of that strategy is out the window and Atlanta comes in with something that's been largely concocted over the last 24 hours. Of course, the absence of Rondo drastically lowers Atlanta's degree of difficulty, but it also forces them to alter a game plan that they'd spent the last week or so putting together and one game carrying out pretty seamlessly.
Tonight, they'll be up against a snake with no head, which is nowhere near as powerful, but far more unpredictable. (Or am I thinking of chickens?). The Hawks knew what to expect in Game 1. Now they have to be ready for anything.
Well, except Rajon Rondo.