CELTICS 78, PACERS 76
Baker buries Pacers
Last-minute basket caps Celtic comeback
INDIANAPOLIS -- Vin Baker visualized the shot he wanted, the shot he knew would be waiting for him. Given the way the Pacers double-teamed Paul Pierce throughout last night's contest at Conseco Fieldhouse, Baker was confident the ball would swing back to him. Baker believed he could get to the middle of the floor, where he's most comfortable.
As the Celtics came out of a timeout with less than a minute to play, it all transpired as Baker pictured it would.
They ran a pick-and-roll for Pierce, who was promptly double-teamed. The second option was Baker, and Pierce found him on the left wing. Baker dribbled a few steps toward the paint, then launched a 12-footer with 20.8 seconds remaining. The basket put the Celtics ahead for good as they defeated the Pacers, 78-76.
"I really went over that play, all that time sitting in that timeout," said Baker. "I said to myself, `I know it's going to get swung back to me because they're going to double Paul. Now, what's the best option I'm going to get?' When I got to the middle, I had three or four options, but I took the option I thought was best, that I had gone over in my head."
Said Pierce, "Pretty much the play was for him because I knew they were going to come jump out on me and he made a play. He's playing with tremendous confidence and other guys have been willing to go to him. And he's coming through for us."
Still, with a 77-76 lead, the Celtics knew they needed one more stop. The Pacers called timeout and diagrammed one final play. Celtics coach Jim O'Brien stayed true to his defensive philosophy: The Pacers could beat the Celtics with an outside shot from someone other than Reggie Miller, but they were not going to allow Jermaine O'Neal anything inside.
As expected, Indiana went inside to O'Neal, whose presence in the post or lack thereof changed the complexion of the game. In the first half, he dominated, scoring 21 of his 25 points and grabbing 9 of his 11 rebounds. In the third quarter, O'Neal found himself in foul trouble and his absence helped Boston come back from a 15-point deficit.
After shooting over 50 percent in the first half, Indiana shot just 32.4 percent in the second. Over the last 5 minutes of the third period and the first 4 1/2 minutes of the fourth, the Pacers missed 12 straight shots.
But with 3.9 seconds left, none of that really mattered. O'Neal had a 5-foot jumper, and he missed, shooting over a wall of green jerseys. Al Harrington grabbed the rebound, but his attempt at a tip shot with 1.9 seconds remaining was also no good.
"The defense was tough-minded," said O'Brien. "We just were not going to give Jermaine O'Neal anything inside. We just were not. If somebody other than Reggie was going to beat us from the outside, so be it. But we just were not going to give Jermaine O'Neal anything inside.
"Paul, Eric [Williams], and Mark Blount just said, `Guys, we're getting a stop and we're getting it right now.' And they did."
But with their new personnel and new offense this year, the Celtics were not entirely confident they could pull off such a comeback. This was a proverbial "statement game" that the players said proved they could compete with anyone. Sure, there was the Mike James game-winner with 1.8 seconds left at Memphis, but this was different. This was Indiana, which entered the contest with a five-game winning streak and the best record in the Eastern Conference.
"It lets us know that we're never out of a game," said James (11 points, 5 assists). "This is like a statement game for us, to let us know where we stand and that we are going to compete this year."
But in the first half, the Pacers looked every bit the best team in the East, while the Celtics searched for their defense and offense. Boston did not score in the second quarter until Pierce hit a 14-footer with 8:40 remaining. That was also Pierce's first field goal of the night.
By the time Pierce (19 points, 9 assists) finally came through, the Celtics were shooting less than 30 percent and trailed, 32-20. By halftime, the Pacers held a 48-34 lead.
"To get a win against one of the Eastern Conference powers on the road, down 15 is a huge character-builder for us," said Baker (12 points). "It's something we can look back on and continue to grow from."
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.