What does an NBA division leader look like? Come to the FleetCenter and find out. The Celtics moved into sole possession of first place in the Atlantic Division last night by defeating the Indiana Pacers, 100-86, on the parquet.
In stumbling to the top, the Celtics started the second half of the regular season where they want to finish it. But despite coach Doc Rivers praising the Boston defense that held Indiana to 44 percent shooting (33 percent in the fourth), he knows a spot atop the Atlantic means little in the larger scheme.
"Well, you know, if you win two in a row you're automatically in first in our division," said Rivers. "It's in the agreement. Hell, you can lose two in a row and you might go to first in our division right now."
All Boston needed was a win over an Indiana team shadowed by distractions and adversity this season. While the Celtics are in the midst of their first and only stretch of four games in five nights, that does not compare to the Pacers' week.
Ron Artest returned to practice Monday, though he remains suspended for the rest of the season for his part in the Nov. 19 brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills (Mich.). On Tuesday, Artest, Jermaine O'Neal, Stephen Jackson, Anthony Johnson, and David Harrison appeared in Michigan District Court on misdemeanor assault charges stemming from the brawl. Last night, Jackson returned to action after a 30-game suspension. Oh, and starting point guard Jamaal Tinsley missed the game with a severe sinus infection, while backup Anthony Johnson played 28 minutes with a mild case of pneumonia.
But it was Rivers who exclaimed at the start of his postgame press conference, "I didn't think we were going to have any guys left!"
The Celtics persevered through foul trouble and injury that depleted their front court. With 3:11 remaining in the first quarter, rookie Al Jefferson suffered a high right ankle sprain that looks as though it could keep him sidelined for a month or more. Mark Blount picked up two personals in less than two minutes and fouled out with 3:49 left in the fourth. Kendrick Perkins and Raef LaFrentz finished with five fouls apiece, though not before making substantial contributions.
LaFrentz (12 points, 11 rebounds) was the best player on the floor in the third quarter as Boston distanced itself from Indiana after taking a 49-48 halftime lead. By scoring inside and outside, staying aggressive on the glass, and blocking a shot by Jeff Foster, LaFrentz sparked and sustained a 16-6 run by the Celtics that ended with the home team ahead, 76-66, with 2:29 left in the third. Perkins (6 points, 5 rebounds) kept a big, annoying body on O'Neal, who has played himself back into MVP contention since returning Christmas Day from a reduced 15-game suspension. O'Neal finished with 24 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 blocked shots.
"[O'Neal] is a tough challenge," said Perkins. "You really don't have a way to play him. You can't play him right. You can't play him left. You've just got to play him straight up. It's difficult. It's like basically playing Shaq [O'Neal]."
Rivers reinserted Perkins shortly after the Pacers made a run in the fourth quarter. After a 3-pointer by Jiri Welsch gave Boston a 14-point advantage, Indiana came back with three 3-pointers of its own. The last, by Austin Croshere, capped a 13-2 run as the Pacers closed within 3 points (84-81) with 6:21 left.
But Boston had a few more 3-pointers left. LaFrentz found Gary Payton for a shot from the perimeter. Then, Paul Pierce hit a 3-pointer from the right corner that effectively sealed the game, pushing Boston ahead, 94-83, with 1:46 to go. If there was any lingering doubt that the game had been decided, it ended when Ricky Davis nailed a 3-pointer from almost the same spot.
"We felt coming into this year that we were going to play with more pride at home, regardless of who we're playing," said Pierce (23 points 8 rebounds). "We know we're playing well at home and we have to protect our home court. If we have any chance of going anywhere in the playoffs this has to be a place where teams can't come in here and feel comfortable."
And the Pacers have felt way too comfortable at the FleetCenter in recent years. Entering last night, Indiana had defeated Boston in nine straight games, including a playoff sweep last season. For that reason, and the fact the Celtics were playing the second of back-to-back games, Rivers viewed the victory as both a mental and physical triumph.
"At some point you have to beat this team, and our guys did that," said Rivers. "That was nice for our mental [well-being] more than anything else. Forget how we played. Some times teams start feeling like they have ownership of you. You've got to knock that off if you're going to be a competitor in this league."