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JACKIE MACMULLAN

This deficit is difficult to figure

INDIANAPOLIS -- This shouldn't be happening.

If I were Doc Rivers, that's what I'd be telling my basketball team this morning. I'd pull out the stat sheet and go down the Indiana Pacers' roster, player by player, and explain to the Celtics in explicit terms just who they are trailing, 2-1, in this first-round playoff series.

Start with point guard Anthony Johnson, a career backup who cheerfully concedes he will always be a backup, and is just keeping the seat warm in case Jamaal Tinsley (injured foot) ever gets well. Johnson dished out eight assists in Thursday's Pacers win in Game 3. He's killing the Celtics by dictating tempo. That simply defies logic.

There's All-Star Jermaine O'Neal, whose shoulder was so painful after Game 3 he couldn't lift his hand above his waist. O'Neal also had his right ankle checked by the medical staff after the game, but was mum on the reason. O'Neal is encased in ice after every game, a nifty impersonation of Nolan Ryan after throwing nine innings of fastballs. It was a wise strategy to make Indiana's big fella pay with hard fouls every time he ventured inside, but even that backfired when Antoine Walker took it one step too far and got himself tossed. Advantage, O'Neal.

The mercurial Stephen Jackson, the only player in this series who has a championship ring (he snagged his with San Antonio two seasons ago), played 33 minutes on a balky left knee that made it darn near impossible to keep up with Paul Pierce in the opening half. Pierce wisely took advantage of the mismatch -- for a while. But when Boston closed within 7 and needed a big basket from its captain, why take a three against a guy who is having issues with mobility? Take him to the hole. Make it hurt. Make the kid work.

Boston must also exploit Indiana's bench. Fred Jones broke the middle finger on his shooting hand earlier this month and had missed 16 consecutive shots -- that's right, people, 16 consecutive shots -- before knocking down his first and second jumpers of the series Thursday night. Jeff Foster is playing with a bad hip and injured calf, but still managed nine boards and two blocks. Austin Croshere is fighting off persistent pain in his shoulder and a bulging disk in his back. Scot Pollard, the oft-traveled backup big man, can't play anymore. We're pretty sure backup point guard Eddie Gill can't play, either.

Shooting guard James Jones looks like he'll be a player someday, but he's too young. Center Dale Davis was a valuable asset in his day, but he's too old.

How is it that the Celtics haven't exposed these obvious weaknesses?

The bane of Boston's existence, of course, is a 39-year-old sharpshooter who weighs 190 pounds. No shooting guard lasts in the league that long. The only guys who play to that age are grizzled, old 7-footers. But Reggie Miller is transforming his farewell tour into a bona fide victory party by seizing control of this series. He burned Boston for 33 points in 35 minutes Thursday night, going 10 of 16 from the floor with pure, nerveless, clean shooting. He's got poor rookie Tony Allen talking in his sleep and Rivers talking to anyone who will listen about his crafty style of play. Hey, I love Miller, too, but 33 points? Get around those picks quicker. Make him work harder on the defensive end.

Rivers employed the same old tactic every opposing coach has used against Miller: publicly alerting the officials to his flops, kicks, and flails. Phil Jackson successfully employed this strategy as coach of the Bulls, but Rivers has taken it one step further. He's even suggested Miller has enjoyed "sympathy calls" because he is retiring whenever this Pacers run ends.

"I'm getting sympathy calls?" Miller said. "I've read a lot of things. Everyone is trying to one-up each other in the psychological wars. I'm just trying to play basketball."

The Celtics should try to do the same. Ricky Davis, clearly the most talented bench player in this series, has to do better than 3 for 18 from the floor (his totals from the past two games). No one should count on Raef LaFrentz to knock in 21 points as he did in Game 1, but it's fair to expect him to create some opportunities for himself. Five shots in Game 3 doesn't cut it, not when the team continues to struggle to score.

Pierce submitted a solid performance in Game 3 (19 points, 6 rebounds), but he has to make Jackson work harder, while always remembering he can't do this alone. If the Celtics rely on isolation basketball, the series will be over.

Gary Payton needs to force tempo and promote ball movement. If he won't, maybe it's time to hand the ball over to Marcus Banks, warts and all.

You've got to believe Pierce, Walker, and Payton have seen enough. They are veterans. They know Anthony Johnson shouldn't be beating them. They know when a team is injured, it's paramount to attack the cracks in the armor. Playing hurt is a lot easier when you're winning. Playing hurt when you're losing becomes a painful chore.

"Nobody said it was going to be easy," said Walker, who didn't help matters by getting suspended for tonight's game. "We can't fall behind by 17 points like we did. We've got to match their intensity."

Some of Boston's inconsistency was inevitable. At one point Thursday night, Rivers had three rookies, Davis, and the second-year Banks on the floor. While that lineup offers all sorts of possibilities, it also invites trouble. First-year players can look like Bill Russell one night, as Al Jefferson did in Game 1, then Bill Murray the next. The postseason pace is faster, harder, more physical. It's a shock to the system the first time, and the Celtics' youngsters are learning that the hard way. Jefferson was clearly flummoxed Thursday night; conversely, Kendrick Perkins, in his first significant minutes of the series, looked like a gamer. Whether Perkins can build on that is anyone's guess.

That's why the veterans -- particularly Walker -- must maintain their composure going forward. The effort is never in question with Antoine. He plays hard, and probably cares more about winning than anyone on the team. As always, he was a stand-up guy after his ejection Thursday night, waiting patiently at his locker for the media rather than ducking the unpleasantness by sneaking out the back. Walker was the measure of calm in Games 1 and 2, imploring his teammates to stay focused and keep their yapping to a minimum.

In Game 3, he forgot to take his own advice.

If I'm Doc Rivers, I'm telling my guys that time is running out. Boston is the healthier, deeper, stronger team. Before this series started, Pacers officials were privately conceding they didn't even belong in the playoffs.

If the Celtics can't eliminate a limping, depleted Indiana team, they are the ones who don't belong.

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

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