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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Rerouting of this series was almost predictable

There's an NBA adage that says you never make too much of the first game of a playoff series.

Historians will trot out the 1985 Finals, when the Celtics routed the Lakers, 148-114, only to lose the series in six games, as primary evidence.

So it was a good bet that the Indiana Pacers wouldn't fall down and forget to get up for the second game in a row.

That's all well and good, but with the Celtics ahead, 76-70, and 4:30 to play last night, they should have trotted off to Indiana with a comfortable 2-0 series lead.

Instead, they imploded down the stretch, watching in horror as journeyman Anthony Johnson came up with two key baskets while they stayed home covering the white-hot Reggie Miller and Ricky Davis clone Stephen Jackson. After the 82-79 loss, a stunned New Garden (old FleetCenter?) crowd filed out wondering just how their team could have possibly lost this game.

Here's how. The allegedly downtrodden Pacers, who looked so hapless just two nights earlier, caught the Celtics celebrating a tad too prematurely. They took advantage of an opponent that relaxed a little soon and appeared to run out of gas in the final minutes. Both Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce played the entire second half, and were unable to convert when it mattered most.

Boston had only one field goal in the final 8:23 -- a Walker running hook with 2:41 to play. Pierce missed a couple of perimeter jumpers, including a desperation three that clanged short with seconds left. Davis missed an open 15-footer from the right side. Walker looked positively exhausted in the final minutes, particularly when he misjudged a drive to the hole, then came up short on the tip of his own miss at the 1:20 mark.

Asked if he was fatigued, Walker said, "It's the playoffs, man. You have to gut it out."

That is exactly what Indiana did. While Davis was yapping about sweeps and brooms and other indignities at halftime of Game 1 -- comments he denied making last night, despite eyewitness accounts from a number of observers -- the Pacers were regrouping in their locker room and discussing ways to neutralize the effects of a disastrous outing.

Pacers hoop boss Larry Bird promised that his guys would show up and play in Game 2. He also predicted that his favorite sniper, Reggie Miller, would shake off his Game 1 woes and offer to take on some of the offensive load. Bird was right on both counts. Indiana jumped out to a 15-4 lead and finished the first quarter shooting 64.3 percent.

Miller, meanwhile, was at his theatrical best. By halftime, he had already knocked down 18 points and had bottled that lethal rhythm that has spelled doom for postseason opponents for nearly two decades. With Sir Reginald operating at full throttle, relying on his patented flailing kick and his leaning jumpers to draw contact, the Pacers kept pace with a Celtics club that was relying on the old familiar 1-2 punch of Walker and Pierce.

"I didn't think we honestly played like us -- like we've been talking about," confessed coach Doc Rivers. "I felt each guy tried to do it themselves. I didn't think we were going to win the game the way we played the first half."

The Pacers hung around like a teenage boy mustering up the courage to ask the pretty doe-eyed girl to dance. It was getting late, and their chances were fading, but they weren't leaving until the music stopped. The biggest lead Boston could muster was 7 (75-68) and that went down the tubes in the final quarter, when the home team scored just 10 points.

Johnson, who was thrust into a starting role when Jamaal Tinsley went down with a foot injury, had already been maligned in this young series, but he earned his redemption last night with a pair of clutch plays. The first was a short jumper with 2:22 left that pulled Indiana within 78-76. The second was a driving layup with 1:09 on the clock that edged the Pacers ahead to stay, 80-78.

"This is what you live for," Johnson said. "I've been in the league several years and been in the playoffs many times, but I've never had the chance to play crunch-time minutes.

"I know what I am. I'm a backup point guard. There's no discrepancy about that. But that doesn't mean I can't make plays given the chance."

The larger issue of last night's blown opportunity is the scoreboard. The Celtics scored just 79 points, and when that happens, it usually spells doom. They were 10-27 this season when held under 100. The Pacers wanted to slow this game to a crawl; they settled for limiting Boston to 8 fast-break points while ripping off 16 of their own.

Yet, taking all of that into consideration, how on earth did the Celtics let this one slip from their grasp on their own court?

"We fell apart," offered Davis. "Guys settled on offense. I think we relaxed."

When apprised of Davis's comments, Johnson countered, "Shame on them. We can't control how they approach that situation."

Presumably, Rivers can. When the Celtics show up for practice this morning, you can be sure they will see clips of those final, futile 4 1/2 minutes over and over again, as much for their defensive letdowns as their lack of offensive execution.

It seems almost a footnote to mention that Pierce, who did not score a field goal in Game 1 until there was 7:59 to play, had 32 points by that same juncture last night. Who would have guessed, however, that he would score his final basket with 10:07 to play, or that Walker's 19 points and 7 boards would be all but forgotten?

That's because it was Jermaine O'Neal (a low-post bucket and two free throws), Johnson, Jackson (a slam baseline), and the indefatigable Miller (28 points) who hit the most memorable shots when it came down to crunch time.

There's another NBA adage that says no series has truly begun until someone loses a game at home.

Consider this series officially on. The Celtics are suddenly in trouble, and the Pacers are suddenly very, very much alive.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.


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