The Celtics' locker room cleared out quickly. Most players changed and left without so much as a passing glance at the two televisions broadcasting the conclusion of the Indiana-Chicago game. Paul Pierce talked to the media with his back to the screens. When asked if he would watch the finish, Antoine Walker said, "No, I'll check my phone [for the score] later."
In years past, the Celtics have sat transfixed by games that would determine their first-round playoff opponent. So, while the Celtics will face the Pacers in the opening round for the third straight year, they approach the series with a different mind-set.
Entering the 2005 postseason, Boston knows it plays best when focused on the task at hand. The Celtics cannot allow situations beyond their control to become distractions. With that in mind, the Celtics accomplished exactly what they wanted last night at the FleetCenter, worrying about what would make them a better playoff team, and not about anything else. Although New Jersey went home with a 102-93 victory and the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference, Boston coach Doc Rivers again gave his young reserves valuable playing time down the stretch. Already showing the benefit of experience gained in Cleveland Tuesday night, the bench players closed within 3 points before the Nets sealed the win with free throws.
"From [Tuesday] night to [last] night, our young guys were a different group of guys," said Rivers. "I was really proud of them. We're ready for the playoffs. I think our guys are in a great frame of mind right now. We'll see. I thought these two games really helped, in a strange way, with our young guys."
Boston trailed by as many as 13 points in the fourth quarter, but rallied behind the play of Delonte West, Tony Allen, Justin Reed, Marcus Banks, and Al Jefferson. When Vince Carter nailed a 3-pointer, New Jersey went ahead, 96-86, with 2 minutes 51 seconds remaining. The shot seemed to seal the game for the Nets. But Jefferson answered with a 3-point play, West followed with a layup, and Reed capped the quick 7-0 run with a 23-footer that brought Boston within 3 (96-93). The comeback was even more impressive considering the Nets needed to win to make the playoffs. A couple of foul calls saved New Jersey from what could have been an embarrassing collapse.
Ironically, after trailing by 19 points in the second quarter and being down, 58-47, at halftime, the Nets staged their comeback against the Celtics' starters (for the most part) in the third. It may have been fan appreciation night, but that did not stop the sellout crowd from booing the Boston reserves at the end of the quarter, with good reason. New Jersey outscored Boston, 32-8, in the third and entered the fourth ahead, 79-66.
Just how poorly did Boston play in the third? The Celtics shot just 17 percent (3 for 18) and recorded just one field goal during the final 7:40 of the quarter. Meanwhile, Carter found his rhythm and scored 15 of his 37 points in the third. New Jersey regained the lead when Carter scored on a 9-foot turnaround jumper with 4:47 left in the quarter.
"It ain't over till it's over," said Carter. "You hear that all the time, but you actually have to believe in it. More than anything, I was happy for everybody that instead of hanging our head and saying, `Aw, man, this could be over,' we were able to keep playing and keep playing. I just felt like I had to give the team a lift.
"It was one of those things where we were playing for a lot and they were just playing to get their season over with. At the same time, you could see they were trying to win the game and we had to rise to the occasion and respond, and I was happy to see that we were able to do it in the second half."
Believing they have prepared as well as they can for the playoffs, the Celtics eagerly await the start of the postseason at 8 on Saturday night. They know home-court advantage could be vital, especially given the resiliency shown by the Pacers throughout a season of adversity. Meanwhile, Indiana last played Boston Jan. 26, well before Walker arrived and the young players developed.
"Every team is going to be tough," said Walker. "All the records are out the window. It doesn't matter what seed. I think this is the first year where seeds don't matter. I think the championship is up for grabs. It's a matter of what team can get hot at the right time. We feel like we can be the team to do that. We just have to take it one game at a time, one series at a time. We look forward to the challenge."