PLAYOFF SERIES: Eastern Conference first round; Pacers leads 2-0.
The Indiana Pacers’ superior depth had a lot to do with them finishing with the best record in the NBA this season.
That strong bench play has continued thus far in the playoffs, and the second unit may have to step up even further when the Pacers look to take a 3-0 lead in their best-of-seven series with the Boston Celtics.
Pacers forward Jermaine O’Neal missed practice Thursday with a sinus infection, but is listed as probable for Game 3. He has averaged 23 points and 11 rebounds in this series.
“We have to do what we can to get healthy by tomorrow,” Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said Thursday. “If we don’t have Jermaine, we’re going to have to have other guys step up.”
Indiana’s reserves played well in Game 2 of the series as the Pacers won 103-90 at home Tuesday without All-Star forward Ron Artest in the lineup.
Artest was suspended for one game by the NBA on Monday for leaving the bench during a confrontation in the Pacers’ 104-88 win in Game 1 Saturday.
Artest took just a few steps onto the court when O’Neal tangled with Boston rookie Brandon Hunter, but the league deemed it enough of an infraction to hand out the suspension.
Al Harrington had a solid game with 12 points and 13 rebounds starting in place of Artest in Game 2, but it was Indiana’s bench that led it to the victory.
The Celtics led by as many as nine points in the third quarter, but reserves Jonathan Bender and Austin Croshere ignited a 21-3 run in a five-minute span over the third and fourth periods as the Pacers took control.
Seeing his first action of the series, Croshere knocked down a 3-pointer at the end of the third to spark the Indiana surge. In the fourth, Bender turned a dazzling dunk into a three-point play and then drilled a 3-pointer a minute later for an 82-72 lead with 7:21 remaining.
“A big part of our team all year has been our second unit,” said Croshere, who finished with 10 points and five rebounds. “For guys like us who don’t get an opportunity to play big minutes in the fourth quarter on a night-in and night-out basis, it is something you really take a lot of pride in when you have the chance.”
The Pacers’ bench outscored Boston’s reserves 43-11 in Game 2, and holds a 75-43 advantage in the series.
Jones had 17 points and Bender added 11 points and seven rebounds.
“We’ve got all the confidence in the world in our second team,” Jones said. “We’ve shown we can play with anybody.”
O’Neal finished with 22 points and 11 rebounds, but said it was the second unit that made the difference.
“I’m really proud of our guys,” O’Neal said. “We not only showed our town, but the rest of the world, what type of team we have.”
Paul Pierce and the Celtics figured to have an easier time scoring in Game 2 with Artest, the NBA’s defensive player of the year, out of the lineup. But Pierce’s struggles continued from the floor. He scored 27 points, but hit just seven of 18 shots and is 12-for-36 in the playoffs.
Boston led by five points at halftime and four after three quarters, but faded badly in the fourth.
“I’m not going to say we’re soft, but we have to play harder,” Celtics guard Chucky Atkins said. “They’re hungry, they want it. You can’t fight for three quarters and expect to win the game.”
The smaller Celtics were again overwhelmed in the front court. Indiana outrebounded Boston 49-38 and outscored the Celtics in the paint 50-30. In the two games, the Pacers hold a 98-58 scoring advantage in the paint.
“Our backs are against the wall,” said Atkins, who added 21 points and six assists for the Celtics. “We have to win (Friday). If we don’t win, there’s no sense in us playing Game 4.”
The Pacers outscored the Celtics by an average of 15.5 points in winning both games in the series at the FleetCenter this season.
Game 4 is Sunday in Boston with Game 5, if necessary, next Thursday at Indianapolis.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Pacers - 1st seed. Celtics - 8th seed.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Pacers - Artest, 24.0 ppg; Harrington, 11.5 rpg; Tinsley, 6.5 apg. Celtics - Pierce, 23.5 ppg and 8.5 rpg; Atkins, 5.0 apg.