INDIANAPOLIS (AP)—With all the big names in the Indiana-Boston playoff series, seldom-used Brandon Hunter might have had the biggest impact in Game 1.
The Celtics’ rookie forward appeared to take a cheap shot Indiana star Jermaine O’Neal in the second quarter, igniting a rally by the Pacers that made the difference in their 104-88 victory over the Celtics in Game 1 of their first-round series Saturday.
Hunter entered the game early in the second quarter and immediately tangled with O’Neal under the Pacers’ basket, drawing a foul for pulling O’Neal to the floor.
“They had a young, strong player throwing an MVP candidate on the floor, and it looked like he was doing it intentionally,” Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said. “I reacted and our team reacted. I think that raised their level of angst a little bit.”
O’Neal got up and yelled at Hunter and Ricky Davis, drawing a technical foul. The confrontation fueled a 24-7 Pacers run, and they never looked back.
“I think it was a factor,” Carlisle said of the scuffle. “You don’t like to see some guy coming in the game that looks like he was put in there to go rough up your best player. I don’t think it’s right. … I disagree with that kind of basketball. It got all of us going.”
Carlisle spoke to the media after Boston coach John Carroll, who was unavailable to respond to the remarks. Hunter left the locker room quickly and did not comment.
“He just grabbed me and threw me down,” O’Neal said. “I’ve just got to do a better job keeping my composure. If they lose him, it’s not make or break for Boston, but me getting thrown out would be a big loss.”
Following the skirmish, the Pacers used their big run to take a 65-43 lead at halftime. And this time, they refused to let a big lead slip away.
Last year, Pierce scored 21 of his 40 points in the fourth quarter of Game 1, allowing the Celtics to overcome a 16-point deficit and win on their way to eliminating Indiana in six games.
Pierce scored 11 points in the first quarter, but Ron Artest didn’t let him get free for the rest of the game. One of the favorites for defensive player of the year, Artest held Pierce to 1-for-10 shooting in the final three periods.
“Ron did a real good job on him as the game wore on,” Carroll said.
O’Neal had 24 points and 11 rebounds, and Artest also scored 24.
Pierce went 8-for-10 from the free throw line and finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds.
“They play good team defense,” Pierce said. “They go up 20 and then you find yourself forcing a lot of things trying to get back in the game.”
Every time Pierce went to the bench, the Pacers went on a run.
The Celtics shot 55 percent in the first quarter to keep the game close, 30-29, but went just 3-for-19 (16 percent) and scored 14 points in the second quarter to Indiana’s 35.
“In my worst nightmare I didn’t know the game was going to turn like that,” Carroll said. “You just don’t want to take (Pierce) out, but you have to take him out at some point.”
Al Harrington added 14 points and 10 rebounds for the Pacers, a strong statement to those who questioned his playoff capabilities.
Harrington averaged just 3.0 points in last season’s first-round loss to Boston, the Pacers’ third straight early playoff exit. He fought off back spasms to give a complete effort on both ends of the floor.
“He’s one of those players that people don’t really talk about, but I think they should,” O’Neal said. “He’s the X-factor for us in the playoffs.”
Chucky Atkins and Davis each scored 19 points for the Celtics, who committed 22 turnovers and were outscored 48-28 in the paint.
Game 2 is Tuesday at Indiana.
Carlisle wore No. 34, now Pierce’s number, during his playing days with the Celtics. The self-deprecating coach joked, “I know now that there’s a great chance my number will be retired.” … Atkins got a technical foul for arguing with the officials in the second quarter. … The Celtics are just 2-10in playoff series when losing Game 1 of a best-of-seven on the road.