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PACERS 103, CELTICS 90

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Celtics roll over in 4th quarter against charged-up Indiana reserves

INDIANAPOLIS -- Ron Artest watched Game 2 of this series from an undisclosed location, banned from Conseco Fieldhouse because of a one-game suspension for leaving the bench during an altercation in Game 1. The four Pacers who usually start alongside Artest watched most of the fourth quarter from the bench, sidelined in favor of more-than-capable reserves with almost unstoppable offensive momentum. Artest or no Artest, starters or no starters, the Pacers outmanned and eventually outplayed the Celtics last night.

The Celtics suffered an embarrassing fourth-quarter collapse and, in the process, may have squandered their best opportunity at taking a game in this series. Shooting 61 percent in the final quarter, Indiana rode the offensive talents of Fred Jones, Austin Croshere, and Jonathan Bender to a 103-90 victory. Even without Artest as a defensive shadow, Paul Pierce (27 points, 7 rebounds) and his mates proved no match for the talent and toughness of the Pacers. The Celtics head home for Game 3 at the FleetCenter Friday down two games to none.

Asked what happened during the fourth quarter, Chucky Atkins, who never shies away from the increasingly unpleasant truth, said, "It's self-explanatory. We're [expletive] soft. I don't really know what to say. We played so good for three quarters, then when it got to the heart of the game, they just out-toughed us.

"We don't care if Ron Artest plays or he doesn't play. We had an opportunity to win the game. When we just give away a game like that, that [expletive] is terrible. That's ridiculous. Tonight's game, we gave it away.

"It just seemed like [the Pacers] wanted it more than us. They gave the extra effort. They fought harder. They had more intestinal fortitude than us and that's sad because I haven't been on a team like that in a while."

The Pacers entered the fourth quarter behind, 69-65, despite scoring the final 4 points of the third quarter. When Croshere hit a 3-pointer with 1.7 seconds remaining in the third, he sparked an 18-1 run. Atkins momentarily stopped the bleeding when he went in for a driving layup. But Bender hit a 3-pointer to give Indiana a double-digit lead (82-72) with 7:20 remaining.

While the Celtics squandered a lead that reached 9 points early in the third, the Pacers were not about to do the same. Jones (12 of his 17 points in the fourth), Croshere (6 of his 10), and Bender (9 of his 11) kept piling on the points with a little help from the late return of starters Jermaine O'Neal (22 points, 11 rebounds) and Jamaal Tinsley (15 points, 6 assists).

Al Harrington filled in admirably for Artest, with 12 points and 13 rebounds.

"We just wanted to come out and play well and show how deep we are," said O'Neal. "We wanted to get this one for Ron because we knew how bad he wanted to be here. As far as me, I struggled big-time and was not sure that I wanted to go back in the game because Bender, Fred, and Austin were really picking us up. We had good chemistry with that group and I just wasn't sure I could come in and keep that chemistry."

While the Pacers took pride in their depth, interim Celtics coach John Carroll described his team's second-half offense as "horrendous."

The Celtics shot 33 percent in the second half, recording just 5 assists on 9 field goals. They committed 9 turnovers, which resulted in 15 points for the Pacers. They were outscored, 12-6 on the break, 24-8 in the paint and 13-3 in second-chance points. It was a dramatic reversal of fortune from the first half.

"We're not a very mature basketball team, and it showed in the fourth quarter," said Carroll. "And it's a shame because we played a very good basketball game up to that point. Unfortunately, the game is 48 minutes, and to win a playoff game on the road, you've got to finish."

Pacers coach Rick Carlisle had talked about holding Boston to around 20 points per quarter. The Celtics scored 22 in the first and 24 in the second. That should have been good news for the Pacers, but they still trailed at the half, 46-41.

The numbers that should have concerned Carlisle were fast-break points and turnovers. Boston outscored Indiana, 19-6, on the break in the first half, dictating the kind of quick pace that benefits the Green. On top of that, the Pacers did not take care of the ball, committing 9 turnovers that resulted in 14 points for the visitors.

Meanwhile, the Celtics improved in all the areas where they needed to most. They moved the ball with greater effectiveness, recording 12 assists on 18 field goals in the first half, shot 45 percent from the floor and did not allow the Pacers to mount a sizable rebounding advantage. But Boston's biggest accomplishment was its consistency in the half.

That was before it unraveled in the second half.

"I guess our team's true colors came out in the [fourth quarter]," said Pierce. "When you're in a tough game, in a tough environment like this one was, in a game of this magnitude, we just didn't have the intestinal fortitude to bounce back from the adversity that we were having."

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