PLAYOFF SERIES: Eastern Conference first round, Game 1.
The Indiana Pacers answered any questions about how they would perform during the regular season.
The questions about their postseason abilities remain.
The Pacers need to prove they can handle postseason play, starting Saturday when they open a best-of-7 series against the Boston Celtics.
Indiana struggled during the preseason, giving little indication that it would open the regular season 14-2, lead the Eastern Conference from start to finish, and finish with the best record in the league (61-21).
“It didn’t look like it coming out of the exhibition season,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “There really were a lot of questions.”
There still are, when it comes to the postseason. The Pacers are hoping to avoid a fourth straight first-round exit.
“Our ultimate goal is to win a championship,” Carlisle said. “We’ve never made any secret of that fact. But you have to take care of things (in the early rounds) first.”
After completing the best regular season in franchise history, the Pacers enter the playoff opener with home-court advantage throughout the postseason for the first time in their NBA history.
It seems Indiana is healthy after a season of injuries.
Jermaine O’Neal’s bruised left knee is on the mend, Al Harrington is playing at full strength after battling a nagging knee bruise of his own, and Jonathan Bender is fresh off the injured list after recovering from a strained right shoulder. That bodes well for a team that doesn’t want to see all its hard work wasted with another early exit in the playoffs.
“It doesn’t mean anything until we get out of the first round of the playoffs,” O’Neal said.
Indiana’s depth is a strength, featuring a roster that is loaded with players who can make a difference in a playoff series.
Reggie Miller, who has been one of the most clutch and productive players in postseason history, is coming off his lowest-scoring season since he was a rookie, averaging 10 points. Miller, though, is certainly still a threat, shooting 40 percent from 3-point range.
The Pacers will also look to Ron Artest, perhaps their best all-around player, to continue his strong play on defense.
He will almost certainly be matched up against Celtics star Paul Pierce, who sat out the last two games to rest a sprained ankle.
The Celtics will need to get their best offensive player going, and Artest— one of the league’s best one-on-one defenders—relishes the challenge of shutting down scorers.
“It’s obviously a huge key to the series, and we’re going to have to help Ronnie as much as we can, put him in position to play Paul the best he can,” Carlisle said. “It’s a great matchup. It’s a premier matchup and one that I know both players look forward to.”
Celtics center Mark Blount knows the Celtics face a difficult challenge against the Pacers.
“Their coach, Rick Carlisle, has done a great job with those guys, not only the starters,” Blount said. “He’s got those guys coming off the bench understanding their role.”
The Celtics benefitted from the weakness of the East to gain the No. 8 seed despite finishing 10 games under .500. They don’t look prepared to do much in the playoffs after losing six of their last eight games.
“I’m going to try to talk to some of these guys and let them know the playoffs are different,” Blount said. “It’s night and day. Everybody knows each other’s plays.”
The Celtics made the playoffs despite a season of upheaval in which coach Jim O’Brien resigned. They traded Antoine Walker before the season started, then made major deals with Cleveland and Detroit. Guards Ricky Davis and Chucky Atkins, obtained in those trades, have helped.
Indiana, though, remains a big favorite.
“We’re going to see a well-oiled machine that, if you don’t come with your `A’ game, will make you look silly,” Boston coach John Carroll said.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Celtics - 1st seed. Pacers - 8th seed.
TEAM LEADERS: Celtics - Pierce, 22.9 ppg; Blount, 7.2 rpg; Atkins, 5.3 apg. Pacers - O’Neal, 20.1 ppg and 10.0 rpg; Tinsley, 5.8 apg.
REGULAR SEASON SERIES: Pacers, 3-1. O’Neal was held to a total of 12 points in the last two games of the series after averaging 23 in the first two. Pierce averaged 20.5 points per game for the Celtics, whose lone win came on Nov. 11, 78-76 at Indiana.