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BOB RYAN

It's clear to see the Pacers have seen it all

The problem with playing a team such as the Indiana Pacers is there are no troubles they haven't seen, no situation they haven't been in, and no team that fazes them, least of all a screwball group such as our lovably flawed Boston Celtics.

"With two minutes left," said Scot Pollard, "I went into the huddle and said, `Guys, they cannot beat us in a close game.' I had confidence we'd make the big plays down the stretch."

I know what you're thinking: Easy for him to say, now that the 90-85 Indiana Game 5 victory is in the books.

But it truly is easy for him to say because, like a great many of the Pacers, he has been involved in countless meaningful games. He knows what separates the men from the boys in playoff basketball, and he had seen nothing in the first four games to convince him that the Celtics had what it takes to defeat a seasoned team such as his in the last two minutes of a game in which his squad was already in possession of the lead.

Granted, neither Scot Pollard, nor anyone else, has ever seen a series that has unfolded quite like this one, in which the Celtics have twice followed up blowouts by losing the next game at home.

"Crazy, man," agreed one Larry Bird.

But even if the details are new, the concept is not. Once you've been around a while, you learn the essential dynamics of playoff basketball. You come to understand that momentum is a laughable concept. In baseball, they say momentum is only as good as the next day's starting pitcher. In this sport, momentum is, well, what exactly?

How many times must we see that when Team A wins by a whopping margin that the carryover effect is almost always nil, unless, of course, it's a series-clinching game, in which case the momentum is final? But if it's anything other than a series-clinching game, it really doesn't matter if you lose by 50 or by 1. An L is an L, and you've just got to turn the page and move on.

And we have just the right Old Guy to drive home the point. Say hello to Reggie Miller, who has been involved in a series or two.

"After Game 1 [a 102-82 Boston triumph in which the Celtics led by as many as 37], I said, `You can't get too high or too low,' " Miller explained. "After Games 2 and 3 [the Pacers winning by 3 and 23, respectively], I said you've got to keep an even keel. After Game 4, when we lose by 30, the same is in effect as in Game 1. You can't get too high if you're them or too low if you're us. Now I'm sure the same is in effect after this."

The Pacers understand why they've lost and why they've won. Indiana knows that when the Celtics find a way to get out on the open floor, they have usually enjoyed success. The Pacers also know that when they've kept the Celtics from doing that, the Green and White have struggled.

What's interesting about this series, and what stamps it as somewhat original, is the fact that for most of the action one team or the other has imposed its will on the other for an entire evening.

"I'm not sure I've ever seen anything like it," said Pollard, whose back-to-back, second-quarter jumpers ignited his team. "One team gets ahead, and just stays there. I may be wrong, but I don't think there have been many lead changes."

Such was the case last evening. Boston's only lead was 4-2.

It's basically about tempo, although Celtics coach Doc Rivers did point out that what really aggravated him last night was that his team really did get out on the open floor a sufficient number of times to do some damage, only to self-destruct in the process. "Of our 22 turnovers, I'll bet 16 were on the open floor," he observed. That figure may be a tad hyperbolic, but there is no doubt that the Celtics were not exactly the '86 Celtics in the finishing department last evening.

But they did find a way to chop a 15-point third-quarter deficit (67-52) to 2, at 77-75 with 5:01 left. But the record will show they never got closer.

That's because Indiana made more big plays at both ends, culminating in a big-time, left-wing 3-pointer by Stephen Jackson, the loquacious forward. With Antoine Walker serving as an extra piece of clothing, Jackson found a way to sink a rather magnificent shot at a very big moment, the Pacers leading, 82-80, at the time.

" 'Toine couldn`t have played any better defense," declared Jackson. "It wasn't one of my normal, confident shots. Thank God it went in."

After that, it was a matter of making sure the Celtics didn't score, and that's something the Pacers were sure they could do.

"Those guys are talented," said Jermaine O'Neal, "but we're a little more experienced. Our defense gives us an opportunity to win every night."

Back to Mr. Pollard. "They rely on their athletic ability," he said. "If the shots go in, fine, but they weren't getting open looks."

The fact is Boston's possessions in the final two minutes were dreadful. One was uglier than the next. After a Paul Pierce banked runner had created that 82-80 situation with 3:06 left, the Celtics didn't score another basket until a meaningless layup by Marcus Banks with 28.6 seconds left, the horse having long since departed the barn for parts unknown.

Rivers talked about his team needing to trust itself, and how there still is time for that development to occur. The Pacers made reference to the fact that many of them have been to either the NBA Finals or conference finals, and that the one thing they've learned for sure is that defense is what gets you there. Having already learned the truth about offense, they just kind of let that take care of itself.

OK, so what if the Celtics find a way to win tomorrow night? Does that mean the Pacers will be worried about a Game 7 back here on Saturday?

Get real. It will be just another big game for a team that truly understands what the NBA playoffs are all about.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.


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