There were nine seconds left in the game, the Indiana Pacers were comfortably ahead and the Boston Celtics essentially had conceded defeat. Yet David West did a weird thing. He dunked.
It might be small in the big scheme of things, since West’s slam didn’t change the ultimate outcome in the Celtics’ 94-83 defeat on Tuesday, but the moment did stand out, given the context.
The Pacers came in having lost four straight games. They fought off a pesky Celtics squad that closed within one point twice in the final quarter. In a situation like the one West found himself in late in the game, with nothing to gain from the bucket except salt on the opponent’s wound, most true champions just hold the ball and let the clock run out.
But West and the Pacers haven’t resembled champions, in that moment or since the All-Star break.
West was actually one of the few Indiana players who played up to his ability, scoring 24 points on 11-for-13 shooting. The Pacers (47-17) were outworked in the post, which they normally own, with the Celtics (22-42) outscoring them 38-36 in the paint and hauling in 20 offensive rebounds. Boston scored 25 second-chance points to Indiana’s eight. Jared Sullinger challenged the imposing front line of West and Roy Hibbert and actually won his share of battles, finishing with 17 points and nine rebounds, seven of which were offensive. Paul George committed five turnovers and four fouls while scoring just 12 points.
Had the Celtics shot any better than 35 percent from the field and 16 percent from three, the result might have been flipped.
“It just didn’t go in enough,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said.
Whatever the reason, George just seems off. He’s averaging 13.5 points over the last four games and his 27-point performance against the Dallas Mavericks looks like more of a blip than his two-point stinker against the Charlotte Bobcats. The one-time Most Valuable Player candidate doesn’t look very MVP-like now, but at least he and his team are on the same page.
Andrew Bynum made his Pacers debut, strangely entering to applause from a crowd that really should know better, then was cheered when he threw down a first-quarter dunk en route to eight points and 10 rebounds. (This is a good time to remind you that Pacers fans once booed the draft selection of Reggie Miller because they wanted Steve Alford.)
It can’t be said Bynum played his way out of Philadelphia and Cleveland, because he never played in the former and seldom played in the latter. Apparently, otherwise knowledgeable Hoosier State fans are willing to overlook that, if he helps them beat the Miami Heat in the playoffs.
Most teams — at least until the last week or so — have shied away from the paint against Indiana. Opponents would rather settle for midrange jump shots than challenge Hibbert’s shot-blocking and West’s rib-bruising inside.
But Sullinger led Boston’s effort to take it to Indiana in the post, regardless of who stood in the way. Kris Humphries finished with 15 points and nine rebounds, and Brandon Bass scored 11 points, including three trips to the foul line for a 5-for-6 mark from the stripe.
It didn’t result in a victory, obviously, but it shows the difference in the Pacers now. Not even the likes of the Celtics, without a single regular taller than 6-foot-10, are afraid to take them on inside. Whatever intimidation existed before is gone.