INDIANAPOLIS -- In a state uniquely devoted to basketball, the Indiana Pacers and their still-loyal fans faced a harsh new reality last night at Conseco Fieldhouse as eight players dressed for a game against the Celtics. The contest marked the first time Indiana took the court knowing the full extent of suspensions levied against Ron Artest (remainder of the season), Stephen Jackson (30 games), and Jermaine O'Neal (25 games). Although yesterday the Players' Union filed an appeal of the stiffest suspensions, more than likely the Pacers will be shorthanded for the next couple months.
The movie "Hoosiers" made the state synonymous with basketball passion and triumphant underdogs. Following the game, forward Austin Croshere called the Pacers' play without their top three players "a classic underdog story." But Celtics coach Doc Rivers took a slightly different view, likening the Pacers to a "wounded dog." There was no telling what Indiana might do as it tried to stay the course for a championship. Boston learned that firsthand, falling to Indiana, 106-96.
"A lot of fans in other cities come to watch the stars play," said Indiana coach Rick Carlisle. "But in Indianapolis and the state of Indiana, people come to watch the game of basketball."
As a small-market team, the Pacers always thought they never got the respect and attention they deserved. They have the attention. Now the Pacers, particularly their young stars, are trying to win respect for how they play, and to distance themselves from what happened.
"We understand now that we're going to have to adjust our style and be very precise at both ends of the court," said Carlisle. "We're going to have to be efficient. We'll have to play at an extremely high level in terms of intensity. We're making some changes. You'll see. Style and tempo-wise we have to play to the strengths that we have. We've got to be an extra-pass team. We've got to be a very smart team in transition. We are still, in the big picture, thinking about winning a championship."
During the 24 hours before playing Boston, the Indiana coaching staff and players reiterated the importance of moving on and playing smart. But in the wake of the Friday night brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills, the Pacers know better than anybody that actions speak louder than words.
So Indiana played a determined, composed, and gutsy game, breaking a 78-78 tie in the fourth with a 20-8 run. The Pacers stretched their lead to 98-86 when James Jones (career-high 22 points) nailed a 3-pointer with 3 minutes 3 seconds remaining. During the decisive spurt, Boston was undermanned when Mark Blount fouled out with 3:53 to go. Upon returning to the bench, Blount shook his head in disbelief, at his sixth personal and what was happening on the floor.
While the Pacers kept their cool, the Celtics glared at the referees and each other during the final minutes. Ricky Davis was called for delay of game after holding the ball in a not-so-silent protest of the officiating. Jiri Welsch (13 points, 5 rebounds) fouled out with 28.5 seconds left.
The loss went beyond embarrassment for the Celtics, who now have their own small place in the history of The Brawl as the first team to loose to the depleted Pacers. Given the circumstances, Paul Pierce said the defeat "ranks right up there" as one of the toughest he can remember experiencing.
"We didn't match up to the challenge," said Gary Payton, who had 14 points and 8 assists. "We played well for about a quarter. That was it. They outhustled us. They outrebounded us. They did everything they possibly could [to win]. We weren't prepared. All of them played well on an emotional high. We've got to respect players like that because they are in the NBA."
Receiving a standing ovation from the crowd of 17,135 every time they took a lead, the Pacers entered halftime ahead, 50-47, after trailing by as many 11 in the first quarter. Boston reeled off a 14-4 run behind strong play from Raef LaFrentz. But Indiana came back with a 10-2 run, led by Jamaal Tinsley. Recovering from a right wrist injury suffered in the fight, it was not clear until gametime whether Tinsley (game-high 29 points) would be available.
"Different players are going to have to step up every day," said Fred Jones (16 points, career-high 10 rebounds), when asked how the Pacers will deal with the absence of Artest, Jackson, and O'Neal. "We've got players on this roster who can play the game. We'll just showcase that now. Of course, my role is increased. I've got to step up and be more of a leader and hold the fort down until the rest of my teammates get back."
The Pacers did more than hold the fort down against the Celtics, stretching their halftime advantage to 12 (64-52) in the third quarter. But without Artest harassing him on defense and tiring him out, Pierce went on a scoring binge, notching 10 of his 20 points in the third. He tied the game with a 21-footer with 3:06 remaining in the quarter. The teams entered the fourth even, 72-72, after the officials disallowed a late layup by Scot Pollard.
Reggie Miller, who will serve a one-game suspension once he returns from a broken left hand, theorized that teams would be looking for "payback" after the way Indiana defeated opponents last season. Despite a warning from Rivers, the Celtics thought they could easily defeat a shadow of the team that swept them in the first-round of the 2004 playoffs.
"We're good as long as things are good," said Rivers. "When things go bad, we fall apart as quick as any team I've been around. The bottom line is they kept playing hard and we stopped. At the end of the day, [the Pacers] are going to win certain games. They're going to win all the games where teams come in and don't take them seriously. This team knocked us out of the playoffs, they beat us the second game of the season. I thought we would have more pride."