INDIANAPOLIS -- It's hard to imagine the Celtics' situation could go from bad to worse in the waning minutes of a 99-76 blowout loss to the Pacers last night in Game 3. But it did.
With 4 minutes 6 seconds remaining, Antoine Walker and Jermaine O'Neal went after each other for the second time. As a result, Walker earned his second technical and an automatic ejection. Walker pushed aside official Tom Washington in an apparent effort to get to Bennett Salvatore, the referee who kicked him out of the game. That could mean further disciplinary action for Walker, possibly a suspension for Game 4.
The incident, as well as the Celtics yelling at the officials from the bench for the remainder of the game, showed just how frustrated the Green have become with their play in the first round of the playoffs. The sixth-seeded Pacers now lead the best-of-seven series, 2-1, over the third-seeded Celtics. Still, despite losing consecutive games, Boston denied feeling added pressure.
"They played hard," said Gary Payton. "They did what they were supposed to do. They got a win. Everything went a little bit crazy. We've just got to play a little bit better. We ain't frustrated. We're going to come back and go to work [today]. It's not a life or death thing. We win [tomorrow] and we'll be just fine. We've got to do what we came out here to do, and that's win one game. We've got to put this out of our mind and see what we can do to beat this team."
The decisive blow came with 5:41 remaining, when Reggie Miller nailed a 3-pointer that pushed the Pacers ahead by 20 points and put an end to whatever comeback hopes the Celtics harbored. Fans at soldout Conseco Fieldhouse rose to their feet and started chanting, "Reggie, Reggie." And there was plenty of reasons to cheer. Led by Miller (33 points) and O'Neal (21 points, 11 rebounds), the Pacers shot 47 percent from the floor. They also held the Celtics to 40 percent.
"We don't want to get too high," said O'Neal. "We have to take what we did and bring that same effort [tomorrow]."
The Celtics tried to wrest the momentum early in the third quarter and appeared to do it until 6:08 remained in the quarter. That was when Walker yanked O'Neal down as the power forward went in for a layup. O'Neal spun around and grabbed Walker's jersey. The two exchanged words and a scrum of players formed before the officials and coaches interceded. The result was a double technical on Stephen Jackson and Walker, as well as a personal foul on Walker. Miller restored order shortly thereafter, at least as far as the Pacers were concerned, when he hit a 15-foot running jumper and drew the foul for a 3-point play that put Indiana ahead, 65-53. Boston closed within 8 points on a 21-footer by Ricky Davis. It was only his second field goal of the night, which was indicative of how much the Celtics struggled on offense.
"We weren't in the game for most of the contest," said Raef LaFrentz. "We were battling back from pretty much the middle of the first quarter, trying to get some rhythm, really trying to get some shots."
Topping the Celtics' to-do list for Game 3 was a strong start, something it hadn't done in the first two games. Boston did what it needed to do by keeping pace with Indiana during the first quarter last night. The Celtics did not allow the Pacers to build a double-digit lead, as they did in Game 2, or even come close to that, as they did in Game 1. But the problem, as it turned out, was the second quarter.
Indiana took a 55-38 halftime lead after outscoring Boston, 31-19, in the second. Indiana distanced itself with a 12-1 run midway though the second quarter with O'Neal accounting for 7 points. At the break, it was hard to tell who was more surprised by what had just transpired -- the Celtics or the fans on hand. With 42.2 seconds remaining in the second quarter, they had pulled ahead by 18 points (55-37) on a layup by Dale Davis.
"It's not frustrating," said Walker. "We just lost the game. We didn't play well from the beginning and put ourselves down 17 at the half, and it came back to haunt us. We could never get it back in the game. "They played well. They gutted out a win on their home floor. Nobody said it was going to be easy. This is the playoffs. We've just got to bounce back."