INDIANAPOLIS -- Somewhere in Indianapolis, Antoine Walker watched Game 4 with a big smile on his face, and, likely, a sense of relief. As they sat on the bench for the final minutes of the fourth quarter, only Paul Pierce, Gary Payton, Ricky Davis, and Raef LaFrentz could possibly match Walker's happiness. They grinned with delight as the young reserves finished up. Everything fell into place for the Celtics on a night when it was least expected.
Playing without the suspended Walker, Boston went small (and quick) and never looked back, leading from start to finish. The biggest adjustment of the series by the Celtics resulted in a 110-79 blowout at Conseco Fieldhouse last night. It was the Celtics' biggest playoff win since defeating the Sixers in a decisive Game 5 of the 2002 first round. Now, the best-of-seven, first-round series heads back to the FleetCenter tied, 2-2, with Boston again owning the home-court advantage.
The Celtics continue to be an unpredictable team, and the revised lineup employed by coach Doc Rivers does not begin to cover it. Just when it seemed Boston wasn't tough enough to win this series, it came up with a dominating performance. The Celtics were the more inspired and more aggressive team last night, showing a determination that had been missing since Game 1.
"In the other games, we didn't play as hard as we did [last night]," said Payton. "We knew we had our backs to the wall a little bit. We didn't think about running plays. We played like we were on the playground and a lot of guys play that type of basketball, pick-and-rolls, getting to the basket, being free, not looking over at the bench or for calls. We were aggressive and it helped us a lot. We needed to get a win for [Walker] so he wouldn't come back and feel bad. I know he's feeling great right now. He's going to redeem himself from being suspended and have a great game on Tuesday. I know he's smiling large. He didn't want to let us down. I think he's smiling more than we are right now."
Needless to say, there were a lot of downcast faces on the Pacers' side. While the Celtics shot 57 percent, the Pacers could never find any rhythm and finished the game shooting 27 percent from the floor. While it seemed no one in green could miss, the Indiana offense went through long droughts. The Celtics piled on the points in the fourth quarter, determined to send a strong message that they are deeper and more talented. Five players finished in double figures, led by Pierce (30 points) and Davis (15 points).
The Pacers began the second half prepared to make sure the Celtics did not run away with Game 4. But Boston managed to take an impressive 78-63 lead into the final quarter, even though Indiana had closed within 2 points, 58-56, early in the third. From that point on, the Celtics finished the quarter with a 20-7 run. Perhaps the most surprising part was that Pierce took (and missed) just one shot in the third quarter, leaving the scoring to Davis, Delonte West, Payton, and LaFrentz.
"They did an excellent job of spreading the ball around," said Pacers guard Anthony Johnson. "It was equal opportunity and guys who don't usually get a lot of minutes stepped up."
Rivers made a big adjustment by deciding to go small with Walker out, though he kept the extent of his strategy secret until the public address announcer revealed the starting lineups. There wasn't exactly a replacement for Walker. Pierce and Davis started at forward. West switched spots with Tony Allen. The smaller, quicker lineup produced the desired result, getting Boston off to its strongest start of the series. Boston led by as many as 14 in the first half and entered the break ahead, 56-47.
The most surprising dividend of the changed starting lineup was that Davis emerged from his recent scoring slump, opening the game by shooting 4 for 5 from the floor after going a combined 3 for 18 in Games 2 and 3.
Davis wasn't the only player to bounce back. West made use of his early minutes by scoring on a layup and 3-pointer. And Pierce got the extra shots he wanted and made a high percentage of them, finishing the first half 7 for 11 from the floor.
"The reason we scored so much was because we didn't force shots and really set the tempo," said Rivers. "We pressured the ball and denied catches all game. I didn't think we had fought the last two games. But this team has fought through adversity very well. It is when they get comfortable that they scare the hell out of me." "We did what we had to do," said Al Jefferson, who finished with 5 points and seven rebounds. "We played hard and we played aggressive. We showed tonight what we are all about as a team."