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PACERS 99, CELTICS 81

Pacers dissect hapless Celtics

With 8:57 remaining in last night's game, the fans were on their feet, roaring. Music was blaring. That's because there was a timeout -- and T-shirts were flying into the stands.

The Celtics, meanwhile, were down, 81-59, at the time, en route to a numbing, humbling, you-really-wanna-meet-these-guys-in-the-first-round? 99-81 spanking administered by the conference-leading Pacers. It was the second straight loss during this Chinese Water Torture of a week for John Carroll & Co., and dropped Boston, for 24 hours anyway, out of the playoff picture.

Maybe that's a good thing, given what we saw last night. This would not be a pretty matchup at 1 vs. 8. Indiana overwhelmed the Celtics in the middle two quarters; Carroll repeatedly used the word "dissect" as if the Celtics were a dead frog and the Pacers were bio students. Old friend Reggie Miller led five players in double figures with 18 points as Indy won its seventh straight and remained neck-and-neck with Sacramento for the best record in the league.

The Celtics, meanwhile, will finish a five-games-in-seven-days week tonight against Washington. They are 2-2 so far and, Carroll said, "Our goal, is to win by 1 point in Washington. If we could do that, I would consider this to be a successful week. It's a grind. This is probably the hardest week that we've had all season."

This game was the first blowout of the week -- and was decided in a 17-minute stretch, the final five minutes of the second quarter and all of the third. The Pacers were a plus-19 over that span, and then continued to crush the hosts in what turned out to be a garbage-time fourth quarter.

"It's like a painful death," said Carroll. "As soon as you stop playing a perfect game, they dissect you. That's what they did . . . We're not going to go out and beat the Lakers or the Pacers if we're not playing on all cylinders. And we weren't."

Chucky Atkins fell on the grenade afterward, blaming himself for the team's sputtering, erratic offense and its overall timidity. He feels it's a point guard's job to get the engine going and he said he was not up to the task.

"I'll take full responsibility," Atkins said. "I wasn't aggressive. I make the team go, but I was really passive out there and it allowed them to lock into our plays. We have to get it back."

Atkins had plenty of coconspirators. The only bright light for the Celtics came when Paul Pierce (21 points) notched his 10,000th point with a second-period jumper. Later that quarter, a Jiri Welsch jumper tied the game, 38-38, erasing an early 12-point hole, and giving the Celtics some reason for hope.

They then went the final 4 minutes 57 seconds of the first half without a basket (botching their final 11 possessions) and scoring only 1 point, that on a Pierce technical foul shot. Indiana closed with a 10-1 run (Ron Artest had 7 of his 10 in that span), resulting in a 48-39 lead at the break. The Pacers shot 54 percent in the half (and 50.7 percent in the game).

The Pacers then broke the game wide open in the third quarter. The Celtics got rolled to the tune of 16-5 over the first 5:39, the result being a 20-point deficit (64-44). The chief culprit was the redoubtable Miller. He had 10 points in the run, including a pair of treys that harkened back to the days of yore. One of them was on a second-chancer. The other was a desperation parabola from the corner to beat the shot clock. It felt like a 5-pointer.

The Celtics shot 4 of 17 in the period and were down, 72-53, after three. And the Pacers were doing all this damage with their two All-Stars, Artest and Jermaine O'Neal, each shooting 3 of 11 from the field. O'Neal, who leads the Eastern Conference with 38 double-doubles, didn't get one last night. He had only 8 points and 5 rebounds in 28 minutes. He did have four blocks.

"We're a team that's so deep," O'Neal said, "it takes a lot of pressure off us. When I shoot 3 for 11, and Ron shoots 3 for 11, and we still win almost by 20, that's the way we want to do this. We've got guys [on the bench] who could be starters on other teams."

The fourth quarter was played only because the rules so stipulate. The Pacers quickly blew the lead out to 24 and the Celtics never got closer than 16 the rest of the way. Suddenly, the thought of a late-night flight to Washington and a game tonight against the Wizards seemed like about the best thing that could possibly happen.

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