Rebuilt Pacers Pound Celtics in Rousing Home OpenerDanny Granger scored 20 points and T.J. Ford added 19 points and four assists while not committing a single turnover as the new look Indiana Pacers beat the Boston Celtics 95-79 in front of a raucous sellout crowd of 18,165 at Conseco Fieldhouse; the Pacers set a franchise record for fewest points allowed in a home opener. The Pacers were without the services of Mike Dunleavy--who started all 82 games for them last year--and they lost starting center Rasho Nesterovic to an ankle injury early in the fourth quarter when the Celtics were still within striking distance. The Celtics hurt themselves by committing 24 turnovers, shooting just 27-78 (.346) from the field and making just 21-35 (.600) free throws but--as Boston Coach Doc Rivers freely admitted after the game--the Pacers have to be given a share of the credit for forcing Boston to shoot poorly from the field and mishandle the ball. Kevin Garnett led the Celtics with 18 points and a game-high 14 rebounds but he also committed a game-high six turnovers. Paul Pierce finished with 15 points, 10 rebounds and four assists but he shot just 3-15 from the field and 7-12 from the free throw line. Ray Allen had a quiet 10 points and six rebounds; he and Pierce also had four turnovers apiece.
What a difference a year makes. Last season, a mediocre Indiana Pacers team played in front of a half deserted Conseco Fieldhouse that had all the vitality and energy of a mausoleum. That is why Pacers President Larry Bird and newly promoted General Manager David Morway retooled the roster this summer; seven of the 15 players who are on the team now were not on the 2007-08 opening night roster. The Pacers fought hard but lost 100-94 in their season opener on Wednesday in Detroit and now they have knocked off the defending NBA champions. When Indiana's lead swelled to 20 points in the fourth quarter, the team received an enthusiastic standing ovation from a crowd that has been starving to see good basketball from their beloved Pacers.
Many NBA analysts and fans are sleeping on the Pacers--the consensus at ESPN is that the Pacers will finish 12th in the 15 team Eastern Conference--but in my 2009 Eastern Conference Preview I wrote, "Most people seem to expect Indiana to be terrible this year but the Pacers only missed the playoffs by one game. They sent Jermaine O'Neal to Toronto in exchange for T.J. Ford, a point guard who will be able to push the ball up the court and feed the team's many three point shooters. I think that the Pacers will surprise a lot of people but in the end they will probably once again fall just short of the playoffs." Obviously, one home opening win does not a season make and the Celtics will most likely finish at least 20 games ahead of the Pacers this season but the Pacers are certainly good enough to challenge for the eighth playoff spot.
Last season, Boston started to make me a believer after I watched in person as the Celtics played hard on every possession and ground out a 101-86 win at Indiana. Later, I had the opportunity to see the Celtics in person during their Eastern Conference playoff showdown with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Win or lose, in each of those games the Celtics played harder and with more focus than they did versus Indiana tonight. When Coach Rivers emerged from the locker room to do his postgame standup, he looked at the gathered media horde and said with a wry grin, "You waited around for this?" That reminded me of the old story that has been told about a basketball coach who was so disgusted by his team's performance that he tried to get thrown out of the game but the referee would not eject him, saying, "If I have to watch this then you do, too." Rivers was not happy with any aspect of how his team played: "We were bad all game. Turnovers, sloppy play, missed free throws--but give Indiana credit. I thought that Jim had them prepared. They played hard, they were fired up for the game. They had fresh legs, clearly, but we have to be mentally tougher. We got in late but we just didn't play well in any aspect of the game and it was amazing that in the third quarter we were only down by nine or 10. It was a miracle but we didn't deserve to win that game."
Someone asked Coach Rivers the question that he will probably hear before and after every game (you can see the slightly different version of it that I asked Rivers before the game in Notes From Courtside): how will the team respond now that every other team in the league will be playing their best game against the Celtics, particularly at home? Rivers candidly answered, "I don't know the answer. I just don't know yet. We'll find that out. Tonight, one thing we're going to learn is that we cannot come out flat because every night we are going to get every team's best (effort). On those flat nights we are going to get our butts whipped and that is what happened tonight."
As for Indiana's prospects, Rivers declared, "I love what they've done. Number one, the character of their basketball team is up. You win with character--and they can play. I just like their team and what they've done. To do that in one summer is pretty impressive."
Casual NBA fans may not know much about Granger, who I singled out over the summer as one of the most underrated players in the league. Rivers is also impressed by Granger: "He's a good player. People don't know who he is yet but they will soon. He's a terrific basketball player. It seems like he's a really good kid--I don't know that because I don't know him but it comes off that way. On the floor, you can see how his teammates respond to him. I think that by moving some of the older guys out and different guys out, it's kind of in some ways become his team and the other players accept that and that's a really good thing."
Pierce literally cooled out in front of his locker after the game: with ice packs on his knees, he tried to explain why Boston lost: "There are a lot of things we didn't do well but Indiana did what they had to do and I give a lot of credit to them. They really executed their game plan. They made their run. We didn't match their energy. It was a tough shooting night for us and we turned the ball over. I thought we played pretty good defense for the most part but in the third quarter we gave up too many layups. We have to expect every team's best, especially on the road in their home opener. I thought we really got caught up in yelling at the referees and we lost our composure."
Pierce was understandably low key as he answered various questions but he managed to find some humor in the situation when someone asked him if Boston's free throw problems are "contagious." Pierce chuckled and replied, "I don't think it's contagious. I mean, it's not like it's a disease. Just because I miss them that doesn't mean everybody else is going to miss them."
Ray Allen had a very pragmatic, matter of fact perspective about the loss: "We're turning the ball over, which takes away a possession from ourselves and then we get an opportunity to score (free throws) with the clock not moving we're not knocking those down, so we were digging ourselves a hole every which way. It's very unlike us and we look forward to playing the next game."
Allen refused to use the Celtics' 4 a.m. arrival in Indiana as an explanation for the team's flat performance. He smiled and said, "We've been doing this for a long time. There are no excuses associated with something that every team in the league has to go through."
Notes From Courtside:
Three-time NBA champion Sam Cassell is kind of a player/assistant coach for the Celtics this season. He is on the 15 man roster but was not part of the 12 man active roster for this game. However, he was quite active in the pre-game warmups, playing a spirited one on one game with Brian Scalabrine. After some fans and courtside personnel started watching, both players played to the crowd a bit. Scalabrine called traveling on Cassell, who appealed that verdict by asking the people on the sidelines; the consensus was that Cassell definitely shifted his pivot foot, so Cassell shook his head but gave the ball to Scalabrine. Cassell kept Scalabrine off balance by alternating pullup jumpers with drives to the hoop, while Scalabrine showed off some dribbling moves and fadeaway jumpers that he certainly will not be using in live action any time soon. I watched them for a few minutes before leaving to go to Coach Rivers' pregame standup but we all found out the result when Cassell bounded into the hallway and shouted, "Hey, Doc! I'm ready, baby" before going into the locker room. Rivers laughed and then explained, "That means he won the one on one game." When I mentioned that Cassell had been playing Scalabrine, Rivers added, "Sam beat him yesterday, too. Sam's good at that." Apparently, this is an ongoing friendly grudge match. I remember that years ago Danny Ferry and Bobby Phills--who both played for the Cavaliers at the time--used to often play one on one in pre-game warmups.
Although Cassell is not part of the regular 12 man rotation, Rivers said, "He's important to our team and I think that he's going to help us on the floor in certain games as well. Obviously, late in the year is far more important to me with Sam than now. We'll activate him on certain nights just to get him game experience, just to play him. That will be later in the year...He reminds me of what Kevin Millar was for the Red Sox. He keeps things loose yet serious and he's able to say things to players that I probably couldn't say."
I asked Rivers, "Last year at this time, at least in the outside world, there were doubts and questions about how all of this would work out. This year you are clearly in the position of the hunted and being looked at as the favorite. How does that affect your attitude or your decision making process?"
He replied, "It doesn't change us at all. As far as we're concerned--and I've said it before--last year is last year and this year is this year. You know, this is not boxing. In boxing, when you lose the championship you have to give the belt back; in basketball you get to keep the trophy. So, the trophy we earned last year is our trophy. We don't have to defend that trophy. That's our mindset. We're trying to win a new trophy, so as far as we're concerned we may be the hunted but we're hunting again as well and that's got to be our philosophy all year."
I followed up by asking, "Do you have an advantage this year from the standpoint that you did win a championship, so now you know that the group can do it and there are not questions about that?"
Rivers answered, "Well, it's a different group but I hope so. Clearly, they have confidence from having done it and the way we won it--there has never been a harder way because we played more games to win it than anyone else. That has to help us. But, we also understand that because we won it every team is going to give us their best effort every night, so that's a task in itself."
Boston's poor free throw shooting is not just a one game phenomenon. Before the game, Rivers said, "Overall, if there is a big negative on our team now it is that we have to make free throws. We work on them but you can't mock a game situation in practice."
After the game, some of the Boston reporters spoke at length with Ray Allen--whose .889 career free throw percentage ranks seventh in NBA history--about the team's free throw woes. One of them asked Allen how many free throws he shoots each day and Allen said that on a typical game day he generally attempts about 75 free throws but not all at once; he shoots five to 10 free throws after each drill. As I said about LeBron James' pregame shooting routine, the best way to try to replicate game situations is to work up a sweat and then shoot some free throws, so it is not surprising that Allen's regimen is structured that way. James shoots about .700 from the free throw line in games and, not surprisingly, shot about .700 when I watched him practice before the Charlotte game on Thursday. So, I told Allen that I understand that he obviously wants to make every free throw but I asked him what is his realistic benchmark for free throw percentage for his 75 practice free throws and he immediately replied, "I expect 90. Above 90." In response to an earlier question, he also explained the proper approach to take when working on this skill: "Now that we know the situation that we have missed free throws, each man on the team really has to focus in every time we get the opportunity to practice free throws...You go through a routine with your body and try to stay connected with the free throw. It's easy to shoot free throws laughing and joking but you've got to have a serious nature when you shoot."
posted by David Friedman @ 3:27 AM