Unofficially, it was the first game of the post-Ron Artest Era. In all likelihood, the troubled and troubling forward has seen his last days in an Indiana uniform as the team attempts to honor his recent trade request.
Deactivated for the remainder of the week, Artest did not travel with the Pacers to play the Celtics last night at the Garden. He did not witness what transpired on the parquet. If he did, Artest may have been tempted to recant his claim that the Pacers are better off without him. It certainly did not appear that way as they struggled offensively and defensively. The game featured the kind of defensive dominance Artest enjoys, though Boston was the beneficiary by holding Indiana to 10 points in the second quarter and 33 percent shooting overall. It marked a season low for points by a Celtic opponent in a quarter and a season low field goal percentage by an opponent.
Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal weighs in on the Artest situation. C6
Still, the Celtics had to execute in the fourth quarter to put an 85-71 victory in the books. The final score marked the fewest points allowed by Boston since March 28, 2004, when it defeated Philadelphia, 89-65. Lacking a sense of urgency to start the final quarter, Boston gave Indiana second, third, and even fourth chances to catch up. As a result, the Pacers lingered. When Paul Pierce (25 points) nailed a 3-pointer with 7 minutes 32 seconds remaining, the Celtics appeared well on their way to a win. But the Pacers also went to the perimeter, and a pair of 3-pointers by Fred Jones brought them within 7 points (76-69) with 3:36 left. Pierce continued to score, while the rest of the Celtics increased their intensity. A driving layup by Pierce (and two free throws from Mark Blount) continued to stretch the lead as Indiana ran out of time and Boston closed the game with a 9-2 run.
It was fitting of the Pacers' frustrations that Jermaine O'Neal missed a second dunk with less than two minutes to play, then fouled out shortly thereafter. The Celtics did not shoot well (45 percent) and still committed untimely turnovers (18), but they did close out the game.
''It wasn't as sharp a game as we would like it to be, but after losing two straight we just wanted to try to find a way to get a win," said Pierce. ''Throughout all the mistakes we made offensively, the turnovers, not executing as well as we would like, we stayed pretty consistent with our defense. We smothered Jermaine O'Neal, didn't let him get off to his usual All-Star self, we covered well and helped each other."
A regular-season romp over the Pacers may not make up for the last time the teams played, when the Celtics lost by 27 points in the Game 7 of the first round of the 2005 playoffs. But there was plenty of evidence last night that Boston is learning from its mistakes.
Indiana opened the third quarter with 11-2 run and closed within 7 (49-42). With 8:29 remaining in the third, Sarunas Jasikevicius capped the run with a free throw that resulted from a Ricky Davis technical. But in encouraging fashion, the Celtics responded with an 8-3 run and reestablished a 12-point advantage (57-45) on a driving dunk by Pierce. The Pacers closed the quarter with a 5-0 spurt behind a pair of midrange jumpers by O'Neal. It was a promising sign for the visitors, who had hoped O'Neal (14 points on 5-of-19 shooting) would finally emerge from his offensive slump. It was wishful thinking.
''We had a different attitude," said Celtics point guard Delonte West. ''We knew coming off the road trip we had our offense rolling most of the time and our defense wasn't there. So, most of our concentration was on defense. We just need to put the two together."
In an effort to keep the offense going, coach Doc Rivers stayed with the starting lineup that worked well last Saturday in Dallas, playing Kendrick Perkins alongside Mark Blount, and bringing Raef LaFrentz off the bench late in the first quarter. The second time around, the Celtics made sure to utilize Blount more often, both inside and outside. Blount scored 10 of his 22 points in the first quarter, and Boston entered halftime ahead, 47-31.
Playing the role usually reserved for Artest, Stephen Jackson guarded Pierce and did a solid job. So, Blount brought a welcome offensive boost. The Celtics were also saved by the fact that their offensive difficulties did not compare to those of the Pacers. Indiana shot 34 percent in the first half, with O'Neal an anemic 2 for 11. The nadir for O'Neal came when he missed a dunk midway through the second quarter. The indignity was replayed on the Jumbotron, much to the delight of the 14,112 on hand.
Even with O'Neal off the mark, Indiana stayed within striking distance until late in the second. Boston closed the quarter with a 13-3 run. With the exception of a 3-pointer by West that capped the run with 2.2 seconds left in the half, the Celtics scored by going inside, converting layups, or by getting to the line. The Pacers could not get anything going.
''In the second quarter, we really dug ourselves a hole," said Indiana guard Anthony Johnson. ''You can credit their defense. You can credit our lack of execution, whatever you want to do. You have got to give those guys credit. They did a good job of taking us out of our sets and making it difficult for us."
The Celtics will try to do that again when the Bucks come to town tomorrow night. They know defense can help them put together consecutive wins for the first time this season.