On Tuesday night, the Celtics rolled in to Indiana as the league's only remaining undefeated team. They left without a blemish, scoring a 101-86 victory and improving to 6-0 in an ugly, foul-plagued battle with a gritty Pacer club. This game was unlike the others; the gorgeous ball movement on display most of the season was absent, and the Celtics relied on a steady diet of isolation and two man wing play to score the majority of their field goals. Though they may have left their pretty passing back in New Jersey, the team remembered to pack their trademark defense, (and does it ever feel weird to say that...) holding the Pacers to a stingy 35% from the floor.
The Celtics made what I would deem a defensive error on the first possession of the game, opting to double down on Jermaine O'Neal and allowing Danny Granger to bury the first of his five three-pointers. As the ball fell through the net, I wondered if Doc had ever watched any game film of the Jim O'Brien era Celtics whatsoever. It was certainly a possibility. Garnett answered right back with a pretty baseline fadeaway. The next few minutes of the game were consumed by the floor crew cleaning up wet spots on the court, a minor injury to Troy Murphy, and a bunch of free throw attempts from both clubs. The early part of the quarter highlighted the PG matchup between Rondo and Tinsley: Tinsley hit a layup and drew the foul on Rondo, but Rondo answered right back with a jumper. Jamaal drove past Rajon again and Dunleavy canned an open shot off the feed, but Rondo hit an eight foot floater in retort. Still, it was clear that Tinsley was getting the better of the matchup as he was penetrating at will and getting good shots for his teammates or drawing the foul. Doc opted to remove his young point guard from the game early for a little "education" as a result.
Pierce drew the second foul on Jermaine O'Neal with roughly six minutes to go in the quarter, per the usual Boston vs. Indiana custom. It just always seems like the Celtics get O'Neal out of the mix early whenever these two teams play one another. The Celtics weren't able to fully capitalize on his foul trouble, due mostly to good Pacer defense. The Indiana gameplan was to deny Kevin Garnett the ball on the high post and, of course, to heavily blitz on the pick and roll. With just these two concepts, the Pacers were able to reduce the Celtics to a first quarter high on isolation play and mismatch exploitation based offense. The ball movement was gone, and through most of the quarter, the results weren't spectacular.
Tinsley dropped a sweet dime over the head of Eddie House to get the Pacers a layup, but Steady Eddie answered right back with one of his patented hair-trigger threes on the next possession. The next Pacer play appeared to be a diagrammed play to get Jeff Foster an open three pointer. Yes, Jim O'Brien has even given Jeff Foster the green light. Love that Obie-ball! The box score will show that it was a two point attempt, but trust me on this one. The next series of plays were more in the wheelhouse of the traditional Celtic killer, as Foster scored on a putback and also made a nice handoff deep in the post to a cutting Danny Granger for a basket. He finished the quarter strongly with six points and six rebounds, if memory serves.
With about a minute to go in the quarter, the freshly-concussed Brian Scalabrine checked in and hit a bailout three with the shot clock running down on the C's final possession. Hey, if head trauma results in him playing like an actual NBA player, I'm all for it. It was the piece-de-resistance in a very spotty quarter of basketball for the team -- they had trailed almost the entire frame but left with a 26-24 edge going into the second.
The Celtics sent a unit of Pierce, Rondo, Scalabrine, Tony Allen, and Pollard to start the frame. Scalabrine began the second quarter as he ended the first -- by launching another three and missing badly. I guess he's allowed a heat check. Tony then tried a strong crossover dribble drive, getting all the way to the basket but lacking the lift to finish the play. Remember, the Conseco Fieldhouse was the scene of last year's season-ending injury for Tony, so a few jitters were understandable. Fortunately, Pollard collected the miss and got the C's another possession. The boys in green were a little careless with the ball in the early portion of the second, coughing it up four times in three minutes compared to just one turnover for the entirety of the first quarter. But hey, that's nothing a Brian Scalabrine pull up three pointer on the fast break can't fix! I wasn't sure what had gotten into Scabs, but I had two theories:
1) He saw how well Glen Davis played in his stead and is trying to serve notice that he's still a contributor on this team.
2) He believes that he is Larry Bird.
I think perhaps seeing The Legend in the arena might have had an effect. He took a charge later on in the quarter and aggressively looked for his own offense at times. Totally bewildering.
Doc appeared to have made an actual good coaching decision midway through the second quarter. Realizing that the Celtics weren't getting anything out of their usual offensive sets, he turned to an old standby for guaranteed point production: Paul Pierce isolation. The Pacers just weren't helping on Pierce in the same way they helped whenever Garnett caught the ball on the high post. I think he also wanted to see how many defensive three second violations the Celtics could collect, as the Pacers interior defenders weren't making timely decisions on what to do whenever Paul caught the rock in his favorite spots.
Paul went to his office on the left elbow and began to work, beginning with his patented right to left crossover fadeaway for a bucket. Granger hit a ridiculous three pointer on the next possession while falling down, serving only to anger The Truth. He took it hard to the cup on a hesitation drive the next possession and was fouled hard by Tinsley. Doc felt there should have been a flagrant foul. Paul did something that is going to get a lot of attention -- after hitting the first free throw, he dropped to the court and did a push-up! This wasn't aired on the Indiana broadcast (the League Pass feed), but was confirmed by those watching on CSN NE. The crowd naturally told Paul how they felt about his display of calisthenics, but he had the answer for their ire. On the next play, he threw down a monster dunk over Granger at a tough angle. He then got to the rim for another tough bucket, scoring and drawing the foul. On the next play, Pierce spun from the left block into the lane for a short hook/layup. He then drew another foul, notching two more free throws with thirty seconds remaining in the quarter. And of course, on the final possession of the half, the Pacers fouled Paul Pierce yet again and he canned two more chippies.
What were the Pacers doing this whole time, you ask? Turning the ball over (ten in the quarter), and missing almost all of their shots. The C's really turned up the defensive heat in the second and forced a lot of the aforementioned turnovers and missed shots. That, and Pierce's second quarter explosion resulted in a 52-43 halftime lead. Jermaine O'Neal's only noteworthy contribution to the box score being three fouls certainly didn't hurt, either.
The C's came out looking to get the fourth foul on O'Neal immediately, but it backfired as he forced Garnett into a tough fadeaway. KG found the range on his next touch though, cashing in on a long two pointer from just inside the arc. Nothing much went on for the next few minutes -- Tinsley hit another three, showing off his improved range, but the Pacer offense was constantly combatting a turnover problem. Sadly for Indiana, they had a much larger problem in the form of Walter Ray Allen. In the third, Allen:
* Hit a nifty reverse layup in transition
* Tossed a high banker off the glass with his customary hesitation drive curling off a middle pick and drew a foul
* Swished a three off a nice bit of Rondo penetration on a designed play
* Upfaked his man and buried a one step drive tweener in the lane
* Notched three more points in transition off a big block by Perkins on O'Neal
* Got to the line with the upfake and made two free throws
What Paul Pierce was to the second quarter, Ray Allen was to the third. The Pacers simply had no chance once he got on a roll, and he finished the stanza with 15 points.
The Pacers couldn't throw it in the ocean from the floor, but kept pace at the charity stripe, as the Celtics only led by eleven, 76-65 going into the fourth quarter. Where the second was mostly good defense on the part of the Celtics, the Pacers got many more open shots in the third -- they just misfired on most of them.
I'm sure that Doc knew that the Pacers were only a couple of threes away from getting right back in the game, so he wasted no time getting his main men back on the floor after buying some time with a lineup of Pierce, Tony Allen, Eddie House, Scot Pollard, and James Posey to begin the fourth. Pierce was the offense in this unit, naturally, taking it strong to the hole again and drawing yet another trip to the line. He finished the game a perfect 14-14. Ray Allen dropped a beautiful dime to Scot Pollard directly after, who played very well in short minutes. A minute later, Pollard took a key charge on Danny Granger, sending the Pacers main offensive weapon to the pine with five. At that point, Indiana had committed nineteen turnovers -- eleven of them coming on offensive fouls!
With about half the quarter gone, Pierce carved into the middle of the lane from his favorite spot and poured in his 28th point. On the next possession, the ball movement every Celtic fan has become accustomed to this season finally found its way from New Jersey -- a nine or ten pass possession ending in a Pierce triple for his 31st and final point. House looked to have turned his left ankle on the play and didn't see any more action, but he is expected to be fine. The Celts were up fourteen, and it looked to be in the bag. I expressed this sentiment in the chat room and was threatened with a two-game ban if the C's managed to lose this one with six minutes to play. I said I'd accept it, but it wasn't happening.
Naturally, the Pacers then went on a 7-0 run to make my ban-gambit a little more interesting. But I knew that a team with this many veterans would know what to do with the ball in crunch time, and my faith was rewarded. Garnett hit a bailout jumper with two on the clock. James Posey came up with a steal. Granger turned the ball over again, his fifth of the game. Give and go to KG for a hoop. Posey picks up an offensive board. Rondo gets hammered by Tinsley and draws a flagrant foul, but he missed both free throws. The Celtics didn't miss those points, as Posey got a quick layup off of the flagrant foul inbound pass to salt the game away, up eleven points with under a minute and a half to go. This bucket totally deflated the Pacers as Ray Allen was allowed to waltz in for a totally uncontested layup on the very next play.
Veteran leadership; veteran poise down the stretch. This is definitely a game that the Celtics would have lost last year when Indiana made their run. What a difference a year makes, eh?
Stud of the game:
Who else? The captain carried the team in the second with the score close and willed the team to victory. The Pacers' mistake was in single covering him for the entire game without having a single player on their roster remotely capable of such a task.
Dud of the game:
Plagued by foul trouble most of the game, Perk was never really able to get anything going and finished with two rebounds and five fouls.