by Jeremy Bauman / @JBauman13
Heading into this match-up, the last 11 games for the Celtics and Pacers have certainly been forgettable, as 5-6 stretches for each ball club has each team limping down the stretch in their own regard.
Although there have been reports that the Celtics are more concerned about their health than their Playoff seeding, it is tough to imagine that they wouldn’t want to finish ahead of the Miami Heat to avoid visiting Dwyane and LeBron in South Beach until Game 3 in the Eastern Conference semis. (Note: If Miami wins out, which includes a game against Boston, they would own the tie-breaker for the 2-slot.)
On the other side we have the Pacers, who gave away two games to the bottom-feeder Pistons and Kings over the weekend by shooting poorly and turning the ball over. They are currently one game up (two games in the win column) on Milwaukee for the final Playoff seed in the Eastern Conference.
The point is this: Coming into this Monday night match-up, both teams needed this game in order to feel better about themselves as they headed toward the final wind sprint of the season.
Early on the Celtics offense did as it pleased while the Pacers defense looked resigned to letting the green team walk all over them. The first five minutes of the game proved to be the “Rajon Rondo Layup Clinic” and to some extent, the “Easy Basket Clinic” for the Celtics. Rondo has five uncontested layups, Nenad Krstic (7 points, 5 rebounds) has a dunk and a free throw to his name, and Paul Pierce (23 points, 6 boards) hit an uncontested triple from the top of the key. Darren Collison (17 points, 4 boards, 3 assists) is supposed to be fast, but Rondo made him look akin to a sloth in the early going. The Cs took an early 16-10 lead.
Then something happened that would change the complexion of the rest of the game. Kevin Garnett (6 points, 6 boards) picked up an unnecessary reach-in foul on Collison in the back court in the first few minutes and picked up another when he fouled Tyler Hansbrough while in the act at the 5:00 mark. Garnett was relegated to the bench for the remainder of the first quarter. The Cs held on to their six-point advantage by the score of 33-27 heading into the second, but Roy Hibbert (26 points, 4 rebounds) scored 13 points in the quarter and helped to keep the Pacers in the game.
The Celtics began the second quarter off with sloppy play; Delonte West turned the ball over a few times, the Cs’ bigs couldn’t finish anything around the cup, and the Pacers took advantage both in transition and in the half-court. With Garnett on the bench the Pacers got the ball inside, where they either finished or swung the ball out to the open man on the perimeter and knocked down the jumper (4-9 from deep in the period).
Doc Rivers brought Garnett back into the game at the 8:00-minute mark in the second, but that backfired horrifically when Garnett picked up his third foul (and most bogus foul thus far, as he was simply tangled with the Pacers’ Jeff Foster while boxing out at the defensive end) with 5:51 left in the half. After a subsequent timeout was called, Rivers gave the death stare to the officials for about 70 percent of the timeout and then decided to coach the team for the remaining 30 percent. He couldn’t believe that the official called a foul on that play, and you can’t blame him.
Just when things couldn’t get any worse on the interior, Krstic picked up his third foul of the half at the 3:31 mark in the quarter and as a result, Boston decided to play small ball with a lineup of Rondo, Allen, Pierce, Green and Davis, which resulted in the Celtics having difficulty establishing any type of rhythm. They resorted mostly to pick-and-pops and transition baskets to keep them in the game, and at the half they were down by the score of 57-49.
Nine seconds into the third quarter, Krstic picked up his fourth foul even though he was nowhere near the ball and was forced to the bench immediately. The Pacers held on to their advantage for half the quarter, but the guys in green stormed back as a team in a big way. Ray Allen and Paul Pierce got involved from the outside, Rajon Rondo’s (22 points, 8 assists) clinic hadn’t closed yet, free throws were falling, and the team’s defense tightened up considerably from the first half. They allowed less penetration into the paint, which in turn led to more contested jumpers and more difficult shots overall for Indiana. Unbelievably, Krstic collected another off-ball foul (this one while boxing out during a free-throw attempt) with under a minute to go and was sent to the bench with his fifth foul. They were outscored 36-24 in the third, but the game was still within arms length for Indiana heading into the fourth, down just 85-81.