Sports Sportsin partnership with NESN your connection to The Boston Globe

Piercing blow

With their star ineffective, Celtics slink closer to early exit

It was deja vu without any altercation between Jermaine O'Neal and Brandon Hunter, with hardly any fight at all from the Celtics, for that matter. It was the worst home loss in franchise history, a defeat indicative of all that is wrong with the Celtics.

No surprises, nothing new at the FleetCenter last night. Indiana used a 19-2 second-quarter run to separate themselves from the Celtics and essentially decide the game before halftime.

Poor defense, inadequate rebounding, and inept passing prevented Boston from having a legitimate chance against Indiana. Shooting 47 percent, scoring 21 second-chance points, and forcing 16 turnovers that led to 20 points, the Pacers dismantled the Celtics, 108-85. The postgame analysis by the home team reiterated familiar themes that dated back well before the start of the postseason. The Celtics talked about the kind of inconsistency that allows extended runs and the kind of immaturity that has 12 players still headed in 12 directions.

"This has been rough," said Paul Pierce, who was part of the problem with a playoff-career-low 9 points (4 for 17) and early foul trouble. "As bad as we have played these three games has hurt me at the bottom of my heart. I know what kind of competitor I am. I know how bad I want to win. I know where I want to be at, [where I] want to take this franchise. For us to come out here [last night] and get embarrassed the way we did is just something I can't explain."

Maybe not in a semi-existential sense, like why a team staring at a first-round sweep could not muster a 48-minute effort in front of 17,680 fans. But otherwise, there were plenty of obvious explanations on the court, starting with the disturbing performance of Pierce and his even more troubling despondent demeanor.

Sidelined by a pair of personals in the first half, Pierce glumly watched his teammates try to keep pace. He looked more than a little annoyed about missing seven minutes. He left the game with 4:19 remaining in the first with the Celtics trailing, 14-12. The first ended with Indiana ahead, 23-20.

Coach John Carroll reinserted Pierce with 9:13 left in the second with the Celtics trailing, 29-24.

The return of Pierce coincided with the start of the 19-2 run by the Pacers, though it really was no coincidence. After the captain hit a reverse layup to bring Boston within 3, Indiana went to work inside and out. The layup accounted for Pierce's only field goal of the first half as he entered the break with 2 points (1 for 7).

Jonathan Bender started the big run for Indiana with a 3-point play. O'Neal followed with a 16-footer. Next, Bender nailed a 3-pointer and Anthony Johnson hit a trey, pushing the Pacers ahead, 40-28. Al Harrington (19 points off the bench) capped the run with a layup on the fast break, propelling the Pacers to a 48-28 lead with 3:59 to go in the second.

"We've put ourselves in a position where we're down, 3-0, and you can't even be upset," said Chucky Atkins (12 points). "They're just flat-out outplaying us in every aspect of the basketball game.

"I don't know what we can do, if we haven't done it by now . . . Everything we do, they have an answer for and they can do better . . . You just don't get to the playoffs and all of a sudden things are out of whack. It's been this way for a while. It's disturbing to have issues because this time of year, everything is magnified. You want to give a good showing, that we deserve to be in the playoffs."

But throughout the series, it's become harder to make a case the Celtics belong. Boston tried to save face in the third quarter, cutting its deficit to 9. With free throws and a pair of field goals from Pierce, the Celtics closed to within 64-55 with 5:58 remaining in the third. Pierce capped the 7-2 run with a 3-point play. But it was too little too late.

The fourth quarter proceeded as a mere formality with the Pacers pushing their advantage to a game-high 26 points. Fans at the FleetCenter filed out en masse with 6:45 left.

"Our problem, as you have seen, has been that we get off to a decent quarter, then little by little, they wear us down," said Carroll. "So, we have to maybe make a dramatic chance, maybe do something that's just out of the ordinary. Because just playing a normal kind of game at some point was not going to be good enough.

"When we came out in the third quarter and we were able to cut it a little bit, down to 9, I thought we had another chance. But again, any time you make any mistake against this team, you pay for it dearly. A lot of teams you can make some mistakes and you can still hang around, but not this team. That's how good they are."

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives