Jackson scores 17 after 30-game suspension

BOSTON (AP) -- Strike up the bland: The Boston Celtics are all
alone in first place in the NBA's Atlantic Division.

"If you win two in a row, you're automatically in first place
in the Atlantic Division. It's in the agreement, you know," coach
Doc Rivers said Wednesday night after the Celtics beat the Indiana
Pacers 100-86. "Hell, you lose two in a row and you can be in
first place in the Atlantic Division."

The Celtics are leading the division at two games below .500,
passing Philadelphia after the 76ers lost 117-107 to the Washington
Wizards. The Celtics hadn't been in first this late in the season
since Larry Bird was still playing.

That was at the end of the 1990-91 season, and the Celtics were
56-26. These Celtics are 20-22.

"It's good to be on top of the division, which puts us in the
No. 3 seed" for the playoffs, said Paul Pierce, who scored 23.
"But even though we're in first place, we're not playing like a
first-place team."

Raef LaFrentz had 12 points with 11 rebounds, Gary Payton had 10
points with nine assists and Ricky Davis scored 18 as a reserve to
spoil Stephen Jackson's return from a 30-game brawl suspension.

Jackson scored 17 points in 38 minutes in his first game back
since the Nov. 19 melee against Detroit, when Ron Artest went into
the stands seeking a fan who threw a cup at him. Jackson followed
Artest into the crowd and took several swings at fans.

Jermaine O'Neal scored 25 for the Pacers.

Jackson hit the Pacers' first basket of the night -- a 3-pointer
in the first two minutes -- and scored eight points in the first
quarter. But he went 0-for-6 from 3-point range in the next three
quarters and scored just six points in the second half.

"I felt like a kid. I'm back and I'm happy to be back," he
said. "I was pumped, excited to be out there. But as the game went
on, my shots fell shorter and shorter from the rim. You have to be
out there to get in shape."

Boston won its fourth consecutive home game a night after
snapping a nine-game road losing streak. The Celtics had lost seven
consecutive games to the Pacers, including a four-game sweep in the
first round of last year's playoffs

"At times, you have to be a 'not tonight' team," Rivers said.
"You say, 'If you're better than us or not, you're not going to
beat us."

The Celtics went on 12-2 run at the end of the third quarter and
the beginning of the fourth, taking an 82-68 lead on Jiri Welsch's
3-pointer with 9:56 to play. The Pacers called a timeout and came
back to score 13 of the next 15 points, making it 84-81 on Austin
Croshere's second 3-pointer of the run with 6:20 left.

After a timeout, the Celtics scored the next five points while
holding the Pacers scoreless for 3:36 and allowing just three
points over a six-minute span.

The Pacers and Celtics last played on Nov. 23, four days after
the brawl and with Indiana missing four suspended players: Jackson,
Artest, Anthony Johnson and Jermaine O'Neal. Now everyone is back
except Artest, who remains suspended through the end of the

Game notes
Celtics center Al Jefferson left the game with 3:11 left in
the first quarter with a high ankle sprain. X-rays were negative
but he is expected to miss at least four weeks, Rivers said. ...
Jamaal Tinsley sat out with a sinus flu and Jonathan Bender missed
the game with a sore right knee. ... Celtics center Walter McCarty
said he wants to be traded because he isn't getting any playing
time. The Phoenix Suns are reportedly interested.