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Celtics 92, Pacers 80

Nice rebound

Celtics get control and return to form

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By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / March 17, 2011

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Frank Vogel knew what he and his team were getting into.

The Celtics were coming off a defeat in New Jersey that made it three losses in four games and were showing all the signs of post-loss irritability, from the quiet flight home to the focused shootaround.

Before the loss to the Nets, they had been in first place in the Eastern Conference since Feb. 12. And now they were in a sprint to the finish with Chicago and Miami for the top seed.

“They’re motivated every night, but particularly after a tough loss the other night,’’ said Vogel, the Pacers’ coach. “Chicago taking over the East, they knew they needed this game.’’

The Pacers looked like fresh meat, having played six of eight games on the road (and losing six), though they returned to Indianapolis Tuesday night and picked up a win over the Knicks.

“This ain’t the place you want to be on a back-to-back,’’ Kevin Garnett said.

In a perfect world, the Pacers wanted to send a message in the event they see the Celtics again in the playoffs. In reality, the Celtics were interested in refocusing, and used the Pacers as punching bags in a 92-80 win last night at TD Garden.

The Celtics moved into a tie for first in the East with Chicago, idle last night after pounding the Wizards Tuesday. Miami is three games back after losing to Oklahoma City.

“It’s an exciting time of the year,’’ said Paul Pierce, who scored a game-high 20 points. “You smell the end coming. We smell the playoffs coming so guys are really buckling down. We want to finish off the season on a good note.’’

After a tough battle early on, the Celtics grabbed control in one quick burst in the second quarter.

First, Pierce flipped a pass to Ray Allen in the corner for a 3-pointer that opened the lead to 7. Then, Rajon Rondo found Pierce at the top of the arc for another one. Finally, Pierce fielded a crosscourt pass from Rondo like a ground ball and shoveled it to Allen on the wing for a third straight three, opening a 42-31 lead.

From that point, the Celtics kept a stranglehold on the game, shooting 46.9 percent and holding the Pacers to 37.5 percent.

“I’m not going to lie,’’ said the Pacers’ Tyler Hansbrough, “they’re really good defensively.’’

After going for a triple-double in the first meeting, and scoring 21 points in the second, Pierce dropped his 20 on 6-for-12 shooting.

Vogel, who was the Celtics’ video coordinator Pierce’s rookie year, joked, “I take all the credit.’’

Jeff Green came off the Celtics’ bench and scored 19 points, winning seemingly every race down the floor and earning easy layups.

“I’d love to see a race between him and Rondo,’’ said coach Doc Rivers.

After missing eight games with a sprained ankle, Delonte West played 17 minutes, and though his stat line was modest (2 points, 3 assists, 2 rebounds), the Celtics took it as another sign they’re coming together after being decimated by injuries.

“He’s been playing somewhere,’’ Rivers said. “Because his rhythm was too good. He’s been in a rec league or something. I was amazed how well he handled the ball. Usually, when you miss games and you’re at the guard position, you have the fumbles and you make bad decisions. He had great timing the entire night.’’

As they struggled over the last four games, the Celtics managed to look largely disinterested, though the top seed in the playoffs — and the home-court advantage that comes with it — will be won in these final weeks.

Beyond that, they’ve gotten dry runs against teams they could see in the first round, getting a scare from the Bucks, then getting stunned by the 76ers.

But after missing 20 of their first 35 shots, the Celtics were dialed in in the third, as Pierce scored 10 points in the quarter.

Now they head to Houston for the start of a three-game trip.

“The anticipation, the urgency is there,’’ Pierce said. “This is what we welcome. The last 16 games of the season, it’s the playoff push. Every game is a big game for us.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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