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Celtics keep region's playoff streak alive

Twelve in a row. The delightful dozen. One for every Bavarian cream in the box. New England's professional sports teams may never lose another postseason ballgame.

The Celtics joined the playoff party last night, pummeling the Indiana Pacers, 102-82, at the New Garden in the first game of their best-of-seven Eastern Conference series.

Like the song says -- the one they sing in the bleachers after the Red Sox hit in the seventh inning -- "good times never seemed so good."

Hard to believe, but we went almost three whole months without tasting a postseason win around here. After Christmas, the Patriots ran the table in Foxborough, Pittsburgh, and Jacksonville, wrapping things up in Super Bowl XXXIX Feb. 6. That came less than three months after the greatest postseason run (eight straight wins) in hardball history by You Know Who.

So with 11 straight wins in the bag, it was time for the most storied franchise in our region to step up and keep the playoff streak going. The suddenly-relevant-again Celtics came through with an impressive opening-night rout.

In the spirit of the evening, there were no less than six retired numbers peppered around courtside in the New Garden for the beginning of the NBA's interminable playoff bakeoff. Bob Cousy, Tommy Heinsohn, and Cedric Maxwell were delivering color analysis from press row, and Jo Jo White watched from the loge level at midcourt.

But it was the presence of a couple of other Green Gods that got the attention of the 18,624 in attendance.

Five minutes before the national anthem, Parquet Patriarch Red Auerbach appeared at courtside, slowly walking toward his midcourt loge seat.

"I don't know how we're gonna do in this series," said Red. "I can't tell. We'll play it by ear. But I'll tell you one thing -- I think Doc has got them as ready as anybody can get 'em . . . Antoine [Walker] and Gary Payton have been like a shot in the arm for us and [Paul] Pierce and [Ricky] Davis do the same."

At 87, Red's still got his fastball. Ask him if these Celtics are ready to deliver long-awaited Flag 17 and he says, "We need a little more help, to be realistic. But I'll tell you, these guys that own the team, they're very good for the franchise. They're fans, but they're realistic."

The other pregame ovation rained down on the blond head of Larry Joe Bird, who elected to watch the carnage next to Pacers general manager Donnie Walsh about eight rows behind the Pacer bench.

"They don't forget me," Bird said with a chuckle. "And every day when I get up, my back hurts because I played for these people. Think they'd forget that?"

Red said it would have been no problem sitting next to Bird, who serves as the Pacers' president of basketball operations. "We're mature," said Red. "Larry and I are close. He still calls me every six weeks or so -- to see how the old man is doing."

The first 2 points of the series were scored by Pacers forward Jermaine O'Neal -- which seemed to be a good sign for those who believe O'Neal's performance might dictate the winner of this first-rounder. Indy's best player hurt his right shoulder shortly after returning from his Auburn Hills suspension and hasn't been his dominant self. He finished the night with only 7 points and 5 rebounds in 25 minutes.

The Celtics made only one of their first 13 shots and fell behind, 12-4. Indiana led, 16-12, with 3:26 left in the first quarter when the inimitable Davis made his first appearance of the playoffs. Davis had been bouncing up and down and yelling "sub" from the end of the Celtics' bench and clearly needed some action. He canned an 18-footer in his eighth second of play.

"That was maybe the most significant point in the game for us," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "It gave the team energy."

Boston trailed by 2 after one, but Marcus Banks gave the Celtics a lift at the start of the second quarter and the Pacers called time after a Mark Blount dunk off an assist from Banks gave the Celtics a 26-20 lead. A couple minutes later, a three by Banks made it 32-21, forcing another Indy timeout.

It got ugly for Indiana after that. With the Celtics getting contributions from just about everybody, Boston outscored the visitors, 39-11, in the second quarter and led, 57-31, at intermission. The Celtics pushed the lead to 30 with just over nine minutes left in the third.

This was all on a night when Pierce and Walker couldn't get a shot to drop. Who knew it would be this easy?

With the rout on in the third period, the Celtics coaching staff had to rein in Davis, who was taunting the Pacers mercilessly from the bench. Pinball Ricky put the energy to good use when he got back on the court. The biggest Celtics' lead was 76-39 after a three by Walker.

Fans old enough to remember the Celtics' last championship know enough not to get carried away with a Game 1 blowout. In 1985, the Celtics beat the Lakers, 148-114, in the first game of the Finals. It was the Memorial Day Massacre. LA went on to win the series in six games. Three years before that, the Celtics crushed the Sixers, 121-81, in the first game of the conference finals. The Celtics lost that one, too.

Bird played on both those teams. He'll probably remind his guys about that before Game 2 at the Garden tomorrow night.

Standing in the hallway, shaking hands with most of the Celtics as they walked past him after the blowout, Bird graciously declined an offer to look at the postgame stat sheet.

"We'll bounce back," Mr. Legend promised.

Not our problem. This is the end of the 2004-05 Celtics season and these are the days when New England never loses in the playoffs.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is

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