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JACKIE MACMULLAN

It's time for order on the court

INDIANAPOLIS -- And the Celtics wonder why they have a reputation of being an immature basketball team.

You tell me. If your club is down 17 points in the fourth quarter of a game with four minutes to go, and you already have been tagged with one technical, why on earth would you initiate enough contact or talk enough smack to possibly draw another? And, if you did indeed get slapped with a second T, which necessitates an automatic ejection from the game, why on earth would you push one official aside so you could charge toward another?

Boston forward Antoine Walker needs to answer these questions. Maybe he will today. He was in no mood to talk about it last night after the Celtics lost Game 3 to Indiana, 99-76, to fall behind, 2-1, in this best-of-seven series.

Here's what we do know: With 4:06 left, battered Pacers center Jermaine O'Neal made a move to the basket, and Walker came over to stop him. The Pacers contend Walker leveled a blow to O'Neal's chest, and was delivering cheap shots to O'Neal's bad shoulder all night. Celtics coach Doc Rivers contends it was O'Neal who was to blame, because he elbowed rookie Delonte West. The fact is Walker and O'Neal became tangled, exchanged words, then O'Neal pushed Walker. There were words, more contact, and the coaches charged the floor.

Because the two had engaged in a similar scrum earlier in the game, and Walker had already been assessed a technical for that skirmish, when referee Bennett Salvatore whistled him for the second one, that meant Antoine was done for the night. Incensed that he was being ejected, Walker pushed official Tom Washington aside to make a charge toward Salvatore for an explanation. He never got there. His coaching staff interjected.

Asked for his version of the events, Walker said tersely, "Next question."

When pressed for details, he said, "It's over, man. Ask me a question about the game."

O'Neal, too, initially declined to comment, but later changed his mind. He dismissed the extracurricular activities as "part of the game."

"People do things in the heat of the moment," said O'Neal, who was terrific, scoring 21 points and hauling in 11 boards. "Things happen. People say things. I know Antoine Walker personally. I don't take it personally. People do things sometimes that don't sit well with other players. I don't like it, but it's part of the game."

The consensus in the Indiana locker room was the Celtics were putting a little more gusto into their hard fouls because they know O'Neal is already struggling with a sore shoulder.

"They were going for a little more," O'Neal concurred. "But I'm built for this. You can keep taking hard fouls on me and I'm going to keep getting up."

Celtics basketball boss Danny Ainge said last night that he "truly doubted" additional action would be taken against Walker, but it's never a good idea to make contact with an official, even if Walker meant no malice toward Washington. You can be sure the NBA grand pooh-bahs will at least take a look at the film to see if they agree Walker's contact with Washington was incidental, which is what Rivers maintained.

"When you get into something like that," Rivers said, "the refs come and grab people. Guys move around. I think the ref made more contact with Antoine than the other way around. The ref was trying to do the right thing."

But shouldn't Walker be smart enough in that situation to realize the game was over, and not jeopardize himself or his team for the next game?

"Jermaine O'Neal started it by elbowing Delonte," Rivers insisted. "Antoine was defending his young teammate. Now, after that, 'Toine should have kept his cool. But hey, we were getting our tails whipped. They were frustrated."

That would be an understatement. While the rejuvenated O'Neal dropped in fallaway jumpers and post-up moves, Reggie Miller continued his perimeter assault with a game-high 33 points. The Celtics, meanwhile, shot 40 percent and again lacked any kind of effective ball movement.

Ricky Davis was 2 of 10 from the floor and is now a combined 3 of 18 in the last two outings. The Pacers bench, meanwhile, which had been useless up until now, submitted 22 points.

When the situation called for poise, the Celtics unraveled. When they needed a calming influence, they simply found themselves embroiled in more turmoil.

"You could see the frustration mounting," said Pacers reserve guard Fred Jones. "It wasn't our game plan going in to get them distracted or anything, but when we kept executing and they kept missing, that got them upset."

There is still plenty of time to turn this series around. A win tomorrow would deadlock the teams again as the action swings back to Boston. But sooner or later the Celtics need to display cool heads and clear thinking.

"Hey, I know how they feel," said Stephen Jackson. "Sometimes I lose it, too. We're all men. We all want respect out there."

Here's the difference: When the young Indiana guys start losing their cool, their leader, Miller, steps in and tells them to cease and desist. That's what he did in the aftermath of the fourth-quarter excitement.

"Reggie was right," Jackson said. "We've got to take his advice and just play basketball.

"But hey, man, it's the playoffs. And it wouldn't be the playoffs if we didn't have a little bit of this going on."

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


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