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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

What's up next hard to figure

Think you've got a handle on this Celtics-Pacers playoff series? Good for you. The rest of us have watched every minute of the first five games and have no idea what's going to happen next.

Trying to predict anything in this series is like trying to guess what Cher might wear to the Oscars or what Dylan might sing the next time he's at the Orpheum. Nothing means anything. And everything means nothing. And I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together. And Jermaine O'Neal is the Walrus.

The Celtics have too much youth and athleticism. They are better when Antoine Walker is back at the hotel or on the bench. They'll win the series.

No. The sage Pacers have the experience and the cool runners to counterpunch Boston's kids. The Pacers don't get rattled. They'll win the series.

Last night in Game 5 at the New Garden, the Celtics spit up a chance to take charge of this weird first-round bakeoff, losing, 90-85. They never led after 4-2. They committed 22 turnovers and failed to finish on the fast break. They showed flashes of their new, young brilliance, but Paul Pierce backtracked into forcing things and Antoine spent the majority of the second half on the shelf and the Green are on the threshold of extinction as they head to Hoosierville for Game 6 tomorrow night.

"Obviously this is a disappointing loss for us," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "We kept giving up back to 'em. I think the turnovers were the biggest factor in the game. It was us trying to make things happen instead of making the next pass. One team had better composure than the other team. We rushed shots. That's not the way you play winning basketball."

"You can't assume anything," said Pacers coach Rick Carlisle. "Our guys did a great job of hanging in. There was a period when we could have crashed and we did not. The team that is hungrier and more desperate usually plays better and wins."

Pacers boss Larry Bird, who knows a thing or two about the playoffs, poured himself a Miller Lite after the game, sat on a couch, and said, "Did you think we were going to quit? You knew we wasn't going to quit. We've been through so much this year. These guys are tough and I think we're going to win a championship before I'm done here."

It should be abundantly clear by now that there is no trend here. No pattern. No indication of what may happen next. The Celtics won Game 1 by 20 after leading by 37. Then the Celtics blew a home game, losing a close one. Then the Pacers routed the Green in Indianapolis and we figured that was it for the locals. Walker was suspended for Game 4 and it looked like all was lost. Then the Walker-less Celtics administered the worst beating in Pacers playoff history -- at Indiana. After that one, we started making our reservations for Detroit. Certainly the Celtics would wrap this up in two games.

Then came last night. A bad loss for the Celtics. A loss in a game the Celtics should have won going away. They came into the night with everything in their favor and they flopped miserably.

Ricky Davis kept his spot in Rivers's starting lineup. After two days of speculation, it was Delonte West going to the bench to make room for Antoine. Meanwhile, veteran guard Jamaal Tinsley returned to action for the visitors.

None of it amounted to a hill of Boston baked beans. The Pacers led by as many as 10 in a stupendously flat first quarter, which ended with Indiana ahead, 23-21. Carlisle's guys led, 50-42, at intermission and most Celtics fans would agree that the biggest local thrill of the first two quarters came when Tom Brady's face appeared overhead on the big board. We can safely say that this was the first time Brady and Bird were under the same roof, but that was of little consolation to those who came to the gym hoping to see the Celtics put a vice-like grip on the series.

The Celtics spun their wheels in a third quarter, committing five more turnovers. A 3-pointer by James Jones (he's got range from here to eternity) made it 67-52 with 4:07 left in the quarter, and brought silence to the Vault.

The Pacers fought harder for the loose balls. They rebounded better. They were more careful with the basketball. And every time the Celtics went on any semblance of a run, Carlisle (trained in the School of Chuck Daly) would call a timeout.

With Antoine sitting passively on a milk crate next to the bench, the Green made a strong run late in the third, cutting the Pacers lead to 70-65 for the start of the fourth quarter.

Walker was still on the crate for the start of the fourth as Rivers used three rookies, Marcus Banks, and Davis on the court. With the Pacers leading by 6 and 6:57 left in the game, Rivers finally put Walker back in the game. He'd been on the bench for more than 11 minutes. He scored almost immediately on a running finger roll across the lane. Another Walker basket, this one a floater in the lane, cut the deficit to 77-75. The Celtics hadn't been this close since 25-23. Carlisle, naturally, called time. He always does.

"I don't care what anybody says, they are better with Antoine in there," said Bird. "I love it when he's on the bench."

A banker by Pierce made it 82-80, but Boston never got back in it. Pierce missed shots and turned the ball over. Then Antoine missed. The grizzled Pacers rode it out.

In a sense, there's something reasonable about all of this. These 2004-05 Celtics have been playing games since October and we really don't have a handle on them. It's a team with almost no definition. That's why even though it looks dark now, it would be a mistake to count them out. They always seem to do the opposite of what we expect and right now that is a very good thing.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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