INDIANAPOLIS -- Ejected from Game 6 last night, Paul Pierce left the floor at Conseco Fieldhouse swinging his green jersey above his head, a gesture certainly intended to taunt the sellout crowd, and allegedly inspire his teammates. It was the final, disgraceful act in a sequence of events that nearly resulted in the Celtics' playoff elimination.
Even in a series filled with the bizarre, unexpected, and unexplainable, Pierce made an unforgettable, many would say idiotic, exit, and forced Boston to pull out a 92-89 overtime win without its leading scorer. The Celtics' victory sends the series back to the FleetCenter for Game 7 tomorrow night.
With 12.9 seconds remaining in regulation and Boston clinging to a 1-point lead, Jamaal Tinsley fouled Pierce by clawing at his face. All Pierce needed to do was step to the line, make a couple of foul shots, and head quietly back to Boston. Instead, Pierce shoved Tinsley after the whistle with his left forearm. The referees huddled, and assessed Pierce a second technical and automatic ejection. Reggie Miller made the resulting free throw, tying the game at 84. Kendrick Perkins, who the Pacers chose to stand in for Pierce at the line, missed the two free throws, and the game headed into overtime.
"I guess I overreacted to a hard foul that I thought was unjust," said Pierce, who appeared at the postgame press conference with his head bandaged, and joked that he had broken his jaw. "I just lost my cool and it almost cost us. I'm just happy we got this win. I'm pretty much speechless. The guys really picked me up. I don't know how I would feel right now if we had lost this game all on a bonehead play. I just have to do a better job of keeping my cool.
"I feel like I got my face torn off on the last play. Tinsley should have been kicked out of the game for some of the dirty fouls that he gives throughout the game."
When asked about twirling his jersey, Pierce said, "I was just trying to rally the troops together, man. We were in a hostile environment. I got kicked out of the game. That's all. I was just trying to give [the Celtics] the go-ahead to keep fighting, that this game wasn't over."
In a reversal of roles, it was left to Antoine Walker, who had struggled from the floor all night, to score baskets in the extra period. He came through, hitting two of Boston's three overtime field goals. With 3:04 remaining, Walker nailed a 3-pointer that pushed the Celtics ahead, 89-86. Then, he hit a 9-foot turnaround jumper to extend the visitors' lead to 91-87 with 59.2 seconds remaining. The Pacers closed within 2 (91-89) on a 10-foot runner by Tinsley and had a shot to tie the game with 9.2 seconds left, but they couldn't get the shot they wanted. Jermaine O'Neal ended up tossing a 6-footer over Walker with 1.9 seconds left. The ball hit the rim and bounced over the backboard.
"I just stayed with it," said Walker. "Paul has carried us so much throughout these playoffs that I wanted to pick him up for a change.
"I told the guys, `Let's win this for Paul.' Coach [Doc Rivers] said, `Let's win this for Paul.' Coach told me to keep attacking the basket and eventually something would fall for me. I just kept playing."
Even before Pierce was sent to the locker room, Boston managed to do just that after falling behind by 10 points in the first quarter, entering halftime ahead, 49-43, and leading by as many as 10 points in the third quarter. But the Pacers rallied late in the fourth.
Anthony Johnson hit a 3-pointer and 19-footer that brought Indiana within 3 (78-75) with 5:54 left in regulation. Walker answered with a 15-footer, running back upcourt with his right index finger pressed to his lips, as if telling the sellout crowd to quiet down. But that was not about to happen, especially when a pair of free throws by O'Neal brought Indiana within 1 (80-79) with 3:44 to go. The crowd grew even louder when Pierce traveled and gave Indiana a chance to take its first lead since late in the second quarter.
But both sides struggled to make shots with the pressure on. Tinsley missed a 12-footer, then Dale Davis failed to follow with a layup. At the other end, Boston moved the ball well, but to no avail as Ricky Davis hit the rim on a 3-pointer. Then, Tinsley had another shot at a 12-footer in the lane, and missed again. Indiana got the ball back but Stephen Jackson could not convert on a 3-pointer. Finally, Ricky Davis twisted his way to the basket for a layup that pushed Boston ahead, 84-81, with 48.2 seconds left.
The Pacers made two interesting trips to the foul line. First, O'Neal hit the first of two, Indiana grabbed the rebound, and got to the line again. Johnson made one of two foul shots to bring Indiana back within a point. Then, the antics started.
"This was one of the weirdest games I've ever been involved with," said Rivers. "We were down 10, we fought back. We went up, they fought back.
"I thought we played with a lot of heart and I'm really proud of this team."
Make that heart and emotion. It proved a combustible combination, and a winning one as well.