INDIANAPOLIS -- Before this series commenced, Larry Bird offered a prescient assessment of postseason basketball.
"The playoffs are a roller-coaster ride," said Bird, now president of basketball operations for the Indiana Pacers. "You have a lot of ups and a lot of downs. Winning one game means nothing. It's the first one to four, and that's all that matters. If they stay focused and stay together and don't worry about the past game and move forward, they have a good chance."
Bird had only two concerns when it came to his team's first-round series against the Celtics: winning the first game and then suffering a letdown. While the Pacers played far from their best basketball yesterday at Conseco Fieldhouse, Bird watched them dismantle Boston, 104-88, to take Game 1. The contest was close for a quarter, but by early in the third, Indiana led by 29 points. The Pacers outscored the Celtics, 48-28, in the paint and outrebounded the Celtics, 46-38. Indiana made the most of its offensive rebounds, scoring 20 second-chance points.
The Celtics never recovered from a second-quarter slump and never moved the ball well enough to generate consistent offense. They shot 40 percent, committed 22 turnovers, and recorded only 15 assists on 29 field goals. Only three players -- Paul Pierce, Chucky Atkins, and Ricky Davis -- scored in double figures.
"We played right into their hands," said Pierce. "We took the first available shots. When we get down, certain guys feel like they have to get us back into the game [individually]."
Interim Celtics coach John Carroll will not have trouble pulling video clips to point out what went wrong. All he needs to do is replay the second quarter. Any chance Boston had ended then when it was outscored, 35-14.
Under coach Rick Carlisle, the Pacers made major defensive improvements, the kind that helped them hold the Celtics without a field goal over the final 10:19 of the second. Boston shot 16 percent in the period. After scoring 11 of his 20 points in the first quarter, Pierce went without a field goal in the second. Then again, he attempted only three. Davis scored the Celtics' last field goal in the second, a reverse layup (on a goaltending call) that brought the visitors within 2 (35-33). Davis downed a pair of free throws to tie the game, 35-35, with 8:43 left.
But the Pacers returned from an official timeout with greater resolve and reeled off a 15-1 run. Pierce watched from the bench as Indiana built an insurmountable advantage. His four-minute absence started shortly before Davis tied the game and ended just before Al Harrington capped the Indiana run by tipping in a Jermaine O'Neal miss.
There was a moment of true playoff intensity, and questionable tactics, during the spurt when Brandon Hunter took down O'Neal after they became entangled under the glass. Hunter was called for a loose ball foul. O'Neal was called for a technical after he sought out Hunter following the play. The two players jawed and jostled as they walked away from the basket. Carlisle strode onto court in an effort to protect the Pacers' MVP candidate.
"I was concerned," said Carlisle. "They had just put in a young, strong player and right away he was throwing an MVP candidate to the floor. And it looked like he did it intentionally. I don't like that style of basketball."
That physical reminder of what the playoffs are all about may have been just what Indiana needed. Following the incident, the Pacers played with the force Carlisle demands. Meanwhile, the Celtics never regrouped. And Pierce never regained the hot hand he displayed in the first.
With a pair of free throws from O'Neal (24 points, 11 rebounds), the Pacers established a 74-45 advantage with 8:33 left in the third period. They were helped by the fact that Pierce stayed cold, making only one field goal -- a 3-pointer with 9:18 to play -- the entire second half. It was a frightening reversal from his play in the opening period.
The first quarter highlighted the difference between a team with nothing to lose (Boston) and a team with the all the pressure that accompanies the best record in the NBA (Indiana). It was, to say the least, a much different story than what took place in the second. It was also a much different story than what many basketball pundits predicted would take place. Without so much as a sign of frustration, the Celtics came back from a 7-point deficit and briefly took the lead (24-23) before finishing the first behind by just 1 point, 30-29.
"We've got a long way to go, but this was just one game," said Atkins (19 points). "It's not the whole series. They're a very deep team that we have to respect. I think we can play with them. We're just going to have to come out and get tougher."