It was not supposed to end this way.
Boston was the higher seed. The Celtics were more athletic and more talented. Boston was the proud possessor of home-court advantage. And only two weeks ago, in the afterglow of the series opener, the Celtics appeared ready to make quick and easy work of the Indiana Pacers.
Well, Game 7 was anything but quick and easy. It was slow and painful and embarrassing. And it wasn't even close.
Indiana advanced to the second round with a 97-70 rout last night at the FleetCenter. Given the Celtics' lack of composure at critical junctures throughout the series, it was only fitting that one of the final images of the first-round matchup was an altercation between the Pacers' Eddie Gill and the Celtics' Delonte West. Kendrick Perkins and Justin Reed joined the fray and were ejected for unsportsmanlike conduct. Meanwhile, Ricky Davis looked eager to enter the mix from the sideline.
As he prepared to leave the court for possibly the last time in a Celtics uniform, Gary Payton turned to his teammates on the bench and said, "This is crazy, man, getting beat like this."
Indiana closed the third quarter with a decisive 21-9 run, gaining confidence with every basket after struggling to score in the second quarter. The run started with a 3-pointer and steal from Stephen Jackson (24 points), who continued to redeem himself after his post-Game 6 outburst, when he claimed his teammates blamed him for Indiana's loss. Then, Reggie Miller hit a free throw that resulted from a technical against Paul Pierce (19 points), who showed he learned little from his Game 6 ejection. Needless to say, it was a most inopportune time to overreact. Clearly, the Pacers were beginning to frustrate the Celtics. As the final minutes of the third quarter elapsed, it seemed as though Indiana couldn't miss. When the quarter ended, the Pacers held a comfortable 64-50 lead. Given the slow pace, it was reasonable to wonder if the Celtics would even have enough possessions in the fourth quarter to make up the deficit. Fans at the soldout FleetCenter began to boo before the quarter started.
It made no difference. The Celtics continued to force passes, rush shots, and eschew effective ball movement.
But the final blow was not self-inflicted, rather it came courtesy of Fred Jones (16 points). Early in the fourth quarter, Jones hit consecutive 3-pointers. The second rattled in with 9:27 remaining and pushed Indiana ahead, 70-52. A pair of midrange jumpers from Jamaal Tinsley followed as the Pacers extended their lead. Indiana led by as many as 29 points, making the public address announcer's enthusiastic calls of a dunk by Ricky Davis (8 points) and a 3-pointer by Antoine Walker (20 points) with less than six minutes to play seem almost comical. Shortly thereafter, fans made for the exits as the starters went to the bench.
"For whatever reason, today was a special day for us," said Indiana coach Rick Carlisle. "I don't know if the leprechauns had the day off. But all I know is we had No. 33 [Larry Bird] sitting on our side in the building. I've got to believe that makes a little bit of a difference when you're in here for Game 7."
Still, Payton (7 points) nearly engineered a successful comeback in the third quarter before the game got out of hand, hitting his first 3-pointer of the series as the Celtics chipped away at a 7-point deficit. The shot from the top of the arc brought Boston within 2 (43-41) with 7:45 left in the third, capping a 5-0 spurt by the home team. With Payton's 3-pointer coming off a nice pass from West, it appeared the Celtics finally remembered what they needed to do to score. But just as quickly and unpredictably as a spirit of cooperation and trust appeared, it vanished. The Celtics unraveled as the third quarter progressed and went back to one-on-one basketball.
"We just made too many mistakes, turning the ball over," said Pierce. "They are a veteran club. They've been together for a while. They made all the right plays. They moved the ball, found the open guys, and executed. It didn't matter who shot the ball."
If coach Doc Rivers had any fear heading into Game 7, he said it was that the Celtics would become too emotional, try to be something they were not, and "throw everything off." Rivers proved prescient when Davis picked up a technical for having words with Jeff Foster early in the second quarter. The exchange appeared to spark the Pacers, who led by as many as 5 points before entering halftime ahead, 35-32.
But truth be told, Indiana did not need much of a spark, considering Game 7 quickly turned into a low-scoring, grind-it-out affair, exactly what the Pacers wanted. While Boston showed during the series it could win either a slow-paced or uptempo game, the same could not be said about Indiana. Both teams shot 33.3 percent in the first half, including a combined field goal drought of nearly the first four minutes of the second. As a result, Indiana outscored Boston, 13-12, in the quarter.
"The No. 1 thing that they are going to take from this is how much it hurts," said Rivers. "That will drive you. I walked into the locker room and every single one of the young guys was sitting there crying. They are not used to this. And this is not anything you want to get used to."