Mercifully for all those involved, all those pretending to care, and all those still watching, the Celtics' season ended yesterday against a backdrop of empty seats and darkened luxury boxes at the FleetCenter. With the notable exception of a few clutch 3-pointers by Reggie Miller, nothing about Game 4 even remotely resembled a playoff contest. Half-hearted cheers came from the crowd of 16,389 only at the urging of the Jumbotron. Laissez-faire body language could be seen on the Boston bench.
The Celtics' play became increasingly sloppy (26 turnovers) and unfocused. They lacked resiliency, folding at the first sign of a spurt by the Pacers. A pair of 3-pointers by Miller late in the first half combined with another trey early in the third quarter proved to be the clinchers, allowing Indiana to distance itself from Boston for the first time. A little distance was all the No. 1 seed in the East needed. Miller propelled the Pacers to a 90-75 rout of the Celtics.
With an average winning margin of 16.8 points per game, Indiana completed a thorough four-game sweep of Boston in the first-round series. The Pacers are bound for bigger and better playoff moments, certainly a second-round matchup against either the Heat or the Hornets and quite possibly a spot in the NBA Finals. It remains uncertain where the Celtics are headed, a fact not lost on the players.
"My heart goes out to Paul Pierce," said Mark Blount. "I want to cry for that man because who knows what's going on. He is in the middle of his [maximum] contract [with four years remaining]. We don't know what's going on. The guy's been a key part of what we've done in the playoffs and how we've gotten there. I feel bad for him. Does he want to be here for the rest of his prime, rebuilding with these young guys? I don't know."
Undoubtedly, it will be another offseason full of changes. Executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge must hire a coach and determine how he will use three first-round draft picks. He must find a way to replace starting center Blount, who is expected to exercise his option and find a more stable home as a free agent. Ainge must convince Pierce the prime of his career will not be wasted on a rebuilding effort that looks like it will take longer than the three years originally allotted for The Vision.
"We need to get better," said Ainge, who maintains his long-term plans are on the same timetable. "I knew that going into the series. The series didn't change any of that. Sometimes getting your butts kicked can light a fire under you for the offseason to want to get better. I think there can be some learning even from this bad series. This year was not pretty. It was nothing like what I envisioned."
Forget for a moment a regular season replete with distractions (trades, the resignation of Jim O'Brien, the termination of Vin Baker) and disappointing performances (take your pick), the Celtics' first-round exit served as a perfect microcosm of all that is wrong with the team. Boston looked every bit like a squad that never came together, that was not playoff caliber. Inconsistent. Indecisive. Ineffective. Immature. Ultimately insufficient talent-wise to compete with the Pacers.
After leading by as many as 7 points in the second quarter, Boston allowed Indiana back in the game with an 8-0 run. With 5 minutes 7 seconds left in the quarter, Miller found Jermaine O'Neal for an alley-oop dunk to cap the spurt, handing the Pacers their first lead since the opening minutes. Chucky Atkins restored the Celtics' advantage with a 19-footer. But it would be the last time Boston enjoyed the lead. The Pacers held a 3-point edge (38-35), when Miller time came early.
The seasoned playoff veteran had been surprisingly quiet until he hit a 3-pointer with 2:45 to go in the second, doubling the Indiana advantage. After a Pierce layup followed a Chris Mihm free throw, Boston came back within 3. Miller responded with another 3-pointer.
A pair of free throws from O'Neal pushed Indiana ahead, 46-38, at halftime. The second quarter again stymied the Celtics as they watched the game slip away while shooting 26 percent from the floor.
The Celtics closed within 6 on a layup by Blount at the start of the second half. But again, Miller came through with a trey that gave the Pacers a 49-40 lead less than a minute into the third. Miller sparked a decisive 12-2 run that spanned slightly more than seven minutes from late in the second until midway through the third.
"We just didn't come out with the necessary energy in the third quarter," said Pierce (27 points, 11 rebounds). "We looked like a team that was ready to go home. We were in a tough position because we've got a team that probably wasn't ready for the playoffs this year. In any other year, we probably wouldn't have made the playoffs. We ran into the best team in basketball and we just weren't quite ready for them this year."
In many ways, the Pacers are everything the Celtics are not, though the visitors did not play their best during the first round. That said, led by O'Neal (18 points), Miller (14), Ron Artest (22), and Al Harrington (13), the Pacers shot 45 percent in Game 4 and played with a discipline throughout the series that rarely allowed the Celtics to control play. Indiana has a team in the truest sense, anxious to prove itself in the playoffs.
Boston has a collection of individuals, anxious to put a difficult season and a difficult series behind them.
"Right now, everything is running through my head," said Blount. "The trades, the coaching, everything that happened. It's like you want to drill a hole in your head [now that the season's over] and release it all."