Time and again, Indy shows heart
The Pacers are a determined bunch. They closed out the Celtics in Boston, kept Reggie Miller's dream alive, and take on Detroit -- again.
BOSTON -- "You suck, old man."
"Hey Reggie: Ready for your career to end?"
"You're a bum, O'Neal. Hope somebody puts a forearm in your face."
The game was all but over, the outcome definitely decided, but Jermaine O'Neal's work wasn't finished.
All that hatred was tucked away, far into the recesses of his mind and now it was time for payback. There was a message to deliver, to the section of Celtic fans next to the Pacers bench that had been riding him and his teammates the entire night.
So after Fred Jones threw home a fastbreak dunk, putting the Pacers up by 76-55 with seven minutes to play here Saturday night, O'Neal yelled at the top of his lungs.
"YEAHHHHHHHHH. YEAHHHHHHHHH. YEAHHHHHHHHHH."
After that, with a timeout on the floor, he slowly strutted to the Pacers bench, grabbing the top of his jersey on both sides and lifting the word "INDIANA" for all to see. He deliberately bobbed his head up and down, smirking all the way as if he were David Ortiz and this was his town.
"The FleetCenter is closed," he said.
Impossible. The Pacers had never won a series in which they had lost Game 1. The Celtics had never lost three home games in a series. Road teams were 16-72 on the road in NBA Game 7 history.
This was Boston. Game 7. The house that Bird built. But Larry Bird was sitting 10 rows behind the Pacers bench for this one. The biggest contribution he made on the night was standing up with 4:37 left to allow a sea of Celtics fans to get on their way and beat the traffic.
Indiana 97, Boston 70.
"We don't quit. We don't give up. We don't stay down," said Stephen Jackson, who led all scorers with 24 points. "Everything we've been through this year was nothing but fuel for us. It makes us want to win even more."
The reason you think the Indiana Pacers are a bunch of punks, the overplayed, and ultra-analyzed, sports apocalypse that was supposed to rip their team apart? That's the reason they are still here.
They won't come right out and tell you, that. But they talk about how that night -- and the 124 games of suspensions that came with it -- built character. How, if you can stay together when one of your best players is suspended for the season (Ron Artest), if you can overcome only having a full team in 17 of your 82 regular-season games, if you can suit up six players for a game, you can overcome anything.
"Our goals haven't changed since the start of the season," O'Neal said. "The goal is to win the championship. As long as we have five guys to suit up and one guy to sub, the goal is to win."
With the most unlikely cast of characters. There they were sitting in the final minutes of Saturday night's victory, this NBA postseason juggernaut. Jackson's left knee wrapped in ice. O'Neal's right shoulder bandaged in ice. Jamaal Tinsley's hamstrings wrapped in, you guessed it, even more ice. And Miller, the 39-year-old shooter who any day now will trade his Air Jordan's for a set of Foot Joys.
These were the guys that did this. This is the core of the crew that handed the Celtics what one Boston writer referred to as "the most embarrassing postseason loss in team history."
With help. Sixteen points for Jones, who had scored 16 in the six previous games of this series combined. Thirteen points in 21 minutes for Anthony Johnson, who barely played as a backup in New Jersey. And nine points and 12 rebounds for Jeff Foster, numbers he hadn't reached in any of the Pacers' last 10 games.
"All the suspensions, all the injuries, it gave guys like me the chance to get some minutes and build some confidence," Jones said. "And it pays off on nights like tonight."
Think it's just a cliché? Think this team really doesn't care about one another? You didn't see the final 10 seconds of the third quarter, with the Celtics holding the ball in front of the Indiana bench. There was every single Pacer that was out of the game -- Tinsley, Miller, Dale Davis, all of them, on their feet, barking encouragement to their teammates shuffling around on defense.
When the ball finally made its way to Al Jefferson, who took a buzzer-beating jump shot in front of the Indiana bench, they all screamed even louder, hoping to rattle Jefferson into missing the shot. He did.
And then there was the scene in the game's final seconds. As Kendrick Perkins and Eddie Gill were scuffling on the court, everybody sitting on the Pacers bench -- even the guys in street clothes -- held green Gatorade cups high above their heads and toasted the first-round success, much to the dismay of the Celtics fans sitting courtside.
"This is a special group of guys," Carlisle said. "And people need to know that."
The series was the ultimate show of intestinal fortitude. Game 4, Celtics playing without the suspended Antoine Walker, a chance to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the series? Pacers lose by 31.
Paul Pierce somehow losing his cool and getting ejected with 15 seconds left in regulation of Game 6, at Indiana, with a chance to put the Celtics away? Pacers lose by three in overtime.
Then, afterward, Jackson complains to the media that his teammates blame him for the loss, creating even more locker room controversy?
It all gets put in the past. Victory happens in the present.
"Nobody outside of this locker room believes in us," Jones said. "But anything besides winning this game was simply unacceptable tonight. That's our mindset."
It's the same mindset they will carry to Detroit, for that's the reward for pulling together and finally fumigating the Celtics. A second-round date with the Pistons and a mountain of questions about the November brawl that tried -- and failed -- to derail Indiana's season.
The Pacers wouldn't have it any other way.
"It's only right," O'Neal said. "It's only right."
And should Indiana win the series -- perhaps even in Detroit -- one can only imagine what O'Neal would say then.
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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