INDIANAPOLIS -- The Celtics' final possession never really materialized. With 2.7 seconds remaining, Walter McCarty tried to hit a cutting Paul Pierce with an inbounds pass. Pierce ran toward McCarty, but the way the Pacers guarded the play made it difficult for McCarty to thread the ball to Pierce.
The imperfect inbounds pass bounced off Pierce's hands. Fred Jones picked up the loose ball. Time ran out. The Pacers walked off the court with a 99-98 victory last night.
Despite the last-second loss, and their current four-game skid, the Celtics (22-27) were, for a change, somewhat accepting of a moral victory. Interim head coach John Carroll was "proud" of the way Boston rebounded from its embarrassing showing against New York Friday night. Pierce applauded the way his teammates fought back after failing to play defense in the first quarter.
"I'm really, really proud of the way we responded tonight," said Carroll. "We're 0-3 this week, but if you really think about it, we took Detroit and Indiana down to the wire -- one at home and one on the road. I told our guys, `If you can respond to a game [like the one against the Knicks] like we did and play like that, then we have a chance to win some games.' "
The Celtics entered the fourth quarter with a 75-74 lead. But a quick 11-0 run by the Pacers at the beginning of the quarter left the visitors trailing by 8 points with 8 minutes 20 seconds left. During the run, Austin Croshere hurt Boston from 3-point range, coming up with two big shots.
The Celtics, however, were not about to give in or give up. They responded with an 8-2 spurt that cut the Pacers' lead to 2 points (87-85). Indiana went up by 7 before Boston cut its deficit to 1 point when Mark Blount hit a hook shot over Jeff Foster with 1:08 remaining. The Blount basket capped a 6-0 Boston run.
Anthony Johnson came up big, nailing a shot from the arc with 46.1 seconds to go. The basket pushed Indiana ahead by 4 (99-95). Pierce responded in kind with a 28-footer from the left wing. But the captain could not hold onto the ball for one final shot at victory.
"The play was supposed to go to me," said Pierce. "It was going to be a short pass and I was going to be able to get the shot off. The pass was off just a little bit. I couldn't quite get my hands up quick enough . . . But I think this game is a character-builder because of the way we fought back from the first quarter."
Philosophical differences over defense drove Jim O'Brien to resign. One can only imagine what O'Brien might have done if forced to watch the Celtics try and fail to contain the Pacers in the first quarter. Indiana finished the first with 43 points, just 2 shy of the all-time team record for points in a first quarter and a season high for any quarter. It was 1 shy of the most points allowed in a quarter by the Celtics this season. Seattle scored 44 points in the fourth quarter at the FleetCenter Dec. 10.
The Celtics allowed the Pacers to shoot 73 percent (16 for 22) in the first, including 60 percent from 3-point range (6 for 10). The Pacers piled up the points during the first because they moved the ball well, recording 15 assists on 16 field goals.
In the second quarter, it was a different story as the Celtics held the Pacers to 24 percent.
"We just got off to a terrible start," said Pierce (24 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals). "We can't give up 43 points in the first quarter like we did. You are not going to win many ballgames that way."
After allowing the Indiana offense to operate practically unchecked in the first quarter, Boston tightened its defense and played its way back into the game during the second quarter. Trailing by 13 (45-32) early in the second, the Celtics staged a 14-3 run to close within 2 points (48-46) with 5:39 remaining in the first half. Impressively, the run took place almost entirely without Pierce, who was on the bench with a pair of personals.
The Celtics never took the lead from Indiana in the second, but they could be somewhat satisfied entering halftime behind only 59-53.
Ricky Davis more than made up for the prolonged absence of Pierce, scoring 18 of his 21 points in the first half. Indiana had to deal with the absence of Jermaine O'Neal, after the All-Star forward strained his neck midway through the second. O'Neal left the game with 5:47 remaining in the second and did not return.
The Celtics made it a closer game in the third, tying the contest twice before a Marcus Banks finger roll on the fast break gave the visitors their first lead, 73-71, with 1:54 left in the quarter.
"We just came up a bit short tonight, but if we play like this every day, I think we can be a pretty good team," said McCarty (15 points). "I definitely think we've taken something from these past three games [under Carroll]. I definitely see light at the end of the tunnel."