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Understudies bring down the house

What if I told you Paul Pierce did not score a single basket in Game 1 of the Celtics-Pacers playoff series until only 7 minutes 56 seconds remained? And what if I told you that when he finally did dunk one, the score was 89-67?

And Boston was winning?

Go figure.

Pierce and Antoine Walker were a combined 1 of 13 from the floor in the first quarter and their team trailed, 20-18, so coach Doc Rivers opted to give his workhorses a breather. He sat Pierce, Walker, Gary Payton, and Raef LaFrentz to open the second quarter, and told veterans Ricky Davis and Mark Blount, in addition to the baby-faced crew of Marcus Banks, Al Jefferson, and Delonte West, he'd go with them as long as they stuck to the program.

"We know the deal," Jefferson said. "We are supposed to play defense and run the floor. When we start the b.s., we're right back on the bench."

There are times when the hook comes mighty quickly. Last night was not one of those occasions.

What the aforementioned quintet submitted in the second quarter was not only exciting and invigorating, it was downright devastating.

While All-Stars Pierce, Walker, and Payton sat and watched in amazement, their "supporting cast" blew the game open with lively defense that led to a freewheeling offensive onslaught. By the time the second unit was done, it had ripped off a 24-4 run and left the Pacers on the wrong end of a 41-24 score.

But that wasn't even the most intriguing part. When Rivers finally went back to his regulars, more than halfway through the second quarter, his stars responded with the same type of defensive effort and unselfish ball movement. It was, in many ways, the most significant development.

Both Walker and Pierce have been known to be petulant in the past when minutes and/or shots haven't gone their way. There was no such behavior last night.

"Of course, I was worried," admitted Rivers in the aftermath of a ridiculous 102-82 victory over the Pacers. "They are human. They're also all scorers. You know what scorers are about -- points. But those guys came back in and continued to move the ball. They continued to play the way that got us the lead. That was the best part of all."

Very little of what happened last night made sense.

The Pacers can't possibly be that bad, can they? Their backcourt was so overmatched, president of basketball operations Larry Bird was seen huddling with Rivers after the game, presumably to propose a deal to acquire West or to sign Rivers himself to a 10-day contract.

If you are coach Rick Carlisle this morning, you are wondering how Walker and Pierce finished a combined 8 of 27 from the floor and your team still got spanked.

We all know Boston is all about scoring, but last night it was their defense that turned this game into a lopsided blowout. That defensive energy was provided by the quickness of Banks and Davis (did that guy drink a case of Red Bull for his pregame meal?) and the shot-blocking prowess of Jefferson.

Pierce conceded he didn't expect to remain sitting so long, but he lauded his younger teammates for their sustained intensity. "Truthfully, I was surprised," Pierce said. "They haven't been in that kind of situation before, but they came out like it was just another game. Usually when the bench comes in, we expect them to play solid and keep the game where it is."

"I don't think it's surprising at all," countered Jefferson, the beefy rookie who finished with 8 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 blocks. "When the second team is going really well, Doc lets us roll. We've been doing this all season."

It would be foolish to count on Jefferson, Banks et al to duplicate this performance again. The truth is still evident: For Boston to succeed in the second season, Pierce, Walker, Payton, and LaFrentz will have to carry the load. The fact that they didn't have to last night is a delicious bonus.

"Any time Gary and Raef can get rest, it's a big deal," Rivers said. "And Antoine, too. They're the only three I worry about.

"Paul is one of those guys who plays all day, every day, in the summer. I just think he's one of those guys who never gets tired."

Although Pierce wound up 2 for 11, it wasn't nearly as bad as it sounded. Ditto for Walker (6 of 16), whose early-game jitters made his shots under the basket go a little hard off the rim.

"That's the great thing about this team," Pierce said. "When we move the ball and play unselfish, they don't have to call on me to score 25 or 30 to win. They didn't need that from me tonight.

"But you can't expect the bench to do that every time out."

You shouldn't expect Jermaine O'Neal to score only 7 points and grab five rebounds again, either, although he sure did grimace every single time he tried to execute a power move under the basket. Indiana's All-Star watched most of the second half with a large ice pack attached to his right shoulder, like a major league pitcher who had been shelled and sent to the showers early.

Indiana is beat up physically, no doubt about that, but it is a proud group. The Pacers know their last game of the season will be the final game of Reggie Miller's career. That in itself is a reason not to quit.

"They'll play better," Pierce said. "We expect that."

What should we expect from Boston in Game 2? That's anyone's guess. Big Al says his unit is going to do it again. Pierce says his starters will control the game.

Either way sounds just fine to Doc Rivers.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is

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