Not so fast.
That was the message sent by the Indiana Pacers last night in a game paced more to their liking. If the Celtics thought they could run away with this best-of-seven-first-round series, they received a hard-to-swallow lesson in what happens when play slows down and every possession becomes precious.
The Pacers executed when it mattered most -- in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter. Anthony Johnson, Stephen Jackson, and Reggie Miller made big shots. The Celtics did not. A fadeaway 3-point attempt in the closing seconds by Paul Pierce hit the front of the rim, sealing the Celtics' fate and securing an 82-79 win for the Pacers.
The best-of-seven series moves to Indianapolis tied, 1-1, with the Pacers having stolen home-court advantage. While Boston's 20-point blowout win in Game 1 was big, last night's loss was even bigger. The Celtics collapsed in the fourth quarter, shooting 25 percent and managing only 10 points on four field goals and a pair of free throws.
"Obviously, we're an up-tempo team," said Pierce, who led all scorers with 33 points. "We're young. We're athletic. We want to get out on the break and use our weapons to their full potential. We can play an up-tempo game. We can play half-court. But as long as we're in the half-court, we need to do a better job of moving the ball, finding the open man, and not forcing things.
"We obviously want to run at first, but if that doesn't happen, we've got to take our time on offense, keep our turnovers down and execute."
That did not happen after a free throw by Raef LaFrentz pushed the Celtics ahead, 76-70, with 4 minutes 30 seconds left. The Pacers started a decisive 12-3 run with a layup from Jermaine O'Neal. After James Jones came up with a big block on a layup attempt by Ricky Davis, Jackson scored on a driving dunk to tie the game, 78-78, with 1:41 remaining. On the other end, Antoine Walker missed two layups and Miller grabbed the rebound. Johnson promptly converted a driving layup to give the Pacers their first lead since the third quarter.
Pierce went to the line on the Celtics' next possession and made just one of two, leaving the Pacers with an 80-79 edge. It was time for Indiana to go to arguably the best clutch shooter in the game. Miller nailed a 17-foot running jump shot to push Indiana ahead, 82-79, with 37.1 seconds left. The Celtics called timeout. They had little choice but to go for a 3-pointer. Pierce could not convert.
"Give them credit," said coach Doc Rivers. "I thought they did a nice job defensively. I didn't think we did a nice job offensively. We went back to a little bit of who we were in the past. But at the end of the day, we had shots that we wanted down the stretch and we didn't make them.
"Give them credit. They made big shots. So it's a series now. We know we're in a dogfight and so we have to go to Indiana and try to get one, or two."
The Celtics seemed slow to realize the seriousness of last night's contest, falling behind by 11 early. Miller (28 points) regained his shooting touch and sparked the Indiana attack, along with Jackson (20 points). But it was Jones who came through at the end of the second quarter, nailing a momentum-building 3-pointer from the right wing as time expired. The basket pushed the Pacers ahead, 47-42 at the break, a welcome reversal from the 26-point deficit they carried into halftime of Game 1.
The Pacers stretched their lead to 6 points, 54-48, before the Celtics snapped to attention. The biggest sign that Boston remembered what was at stake came at the five-minute mark when Ricky Davis dove after a loose ball. Later, Davis defended by shadow boxing, frenetically punching the air around Jackson. The extra defensive intensity helped Boston outscore Indiana, 27-17, in the third quarter and take a 69-64 advantage into the fourth.
The Celtics seemed to be on their way to victory, but no NBA team has shown resiliency in the face of adversity better than the Pacers this season.
The Celtics cannot afford to forget whom they are playing.
"Game 1, for whatever reason, was an easy game," said LaFrentz. "It was like, `This is who we've got?' But it wasn't going to be that way in my mind or in the veterans' minds. We tried to convey that to the young guys. They didn't believe us. No series is easy. Not even a sweep."