In the playoffs, a series can change dramatically in an instant. One moment can shift the advantage and determine the outcome not only of the series, but a season.
Sunday was a reminder of this elemental truth. Then, one game produced a few seconds of anger with consequences that could linger through a New England summer. Another produced physical injury for one team, anguish for another that may be harder to endure.
Don’t the Grizzlies feel worse after blowing a 24-point fourth-quarter home-court lead over the Clippers than the Celtics do about losing Game 1 in Atlanta?
Consolation for Memphis: All the Grizzlies can play in Game 2.
Boston guard Rajon Rondo is a mild-mannered man, but he lost his cool late in a Game 1 loss to the Hawks and bumped a referee. It’s hard to tell if Rondo had true remorse; he pleaded innocent intent after bumping referee Marc Davis as he chased him to express displeasure at a foul called on Brandon Bass.
Rondo sounded sincere enough in a televised postgame interview, but this was a player suspended for two games for throwing a ball at a referee earlier this season. David Stern has a well-established lack of tolerance for recidivist behavior. The commissioner suspended Rondo for Game 2.
Rondo will have to watch the remaining Celtics try to even the series from his Atlanta hotel room, unable to aid a team that may also be without 3-point ace Ray Allen.
Even from a thousand miles away, Gregg Popovich knows this is a teachable moment.
“That was very uncharacteristic for him,” a soft-hearted Popovich said of Rondo’s indiscretion. “It’s such an anomaly; a unique, one-in-a-million sort of situation. It just happened so quickly, without any thought, or anything like that.
“It was just unfortunate, but we will use it to remind our players that you’ve just got to keep your wits about you, no matter how high the emotion or no matter what’s going on out on the court. It’s tough for players. Sometimes it’s tough for me.”
Popovich won’t have a hard time convincing Boris Diaw it is better to keep one’s wits. The versatile big man is with the Spurs now but hasn’t forgotten losing his head for a couple of seconds when he was with the Suns in 2007.
Then, Diaw and Amare Stoudemire took a couple steps off the bench after Spurs forward Robert Horry hip-checked Phoenix’s Steve Nash into the press table at the end of a Suns victory at the ATT Center in Game 4 of the Western semifinals. Citing league policy, Stern suspended both players for Game 5 in Phoenix, where the Spurs won 88-85 before closing out in San Antonio on their way to their fourth championship.
“It doesn’t haunt me, but it was the case we didn’t get the chance to play, our team vs. their team, with everybody being there,” Diaw says now, with a hint of sadness.
Every coach wants to enter every playoff game with a full complement of players, but each knows misfortune lurks. Even in the afterglow of his team’s amazing fourth-quarter comeback win in Memphis, Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro had to begin pondering how he would approach Game 2 without guard Caron Butler, who suffered a fracture of the left hand during Game 1.
Injuries happen, but suspensions are imposed. Popovich will implore his players to remain ultra-competitive and level-headed.
Popovich deserves Coach of the Year as much for his ability to get the Spurs to the playoffs fresher than any team in the field as for his acknowledged acumen at Xs and Os.
After all that minute management, were Tony Parker to bump a referee and face suspension, his coach’s head might explode.