BOSTON — Unlike the two higher-seeded Eastern Conference teams who began their playoff campaigns Saturday, the Boston Celtics started theirs with a victory Sunday afternoon.
But after an up-and-down regular season that often felt like an underwhelming extended prelude to the playoffs, things didn’t feel much different in the postseason.
Yes, the Celtics beat the Indiana Pacers Sunday, winning 84-74 in a game which was perhaps the closest thing to a rock fight that a professional basketball game has been in years. But it is going to take more than one middling performance against an overmatched opponent to prove that Boston is actually going to be a serious threat to emerge from the East — especially with Marcus Smart out of the picture for the foreseeable future.
“It was hard,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “It wasn’t pretty … you’ve got to stay together, and you’ve got to grind it out.”
With Joel Embiid hobbled, Philadelphia’s winning formula was thrown off, and the deep run the team expected is off to a false start.
Despite the unexpected return of its Game 1 demons, Toronto remains confident its new star will reverse the Raptors’ postseason fortunes.
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The Celtics, to their credit, did do that. And much of the ugliness of the game is actually a credit to the Pacers, who can only make this series competitive by making it as ugly as possible.
And, boy, was this game ugly.
Boston finished the game shooting 36.7 percent from the field, and committing 20 turnovers. Over the past 35 years, teams that shot that poorly and committed that many turnovers had gone a combined 3-19 in playoff games before Sunday.
This shouldn’t surprise anyone; it’s hard to imagine any team thinking they can make less than 40 percent of their shots and commit 20 turnovers and still win. That the Celtics were able to only underscores just how abominable the Pacers were in the second half — and, particularly, in the third quarter.
“I think what we were doing out there today was good for us,” Pacers forward Thaddeus Young said. We just didn’t make shots in that third quarter.
“That third quarter was huge for them. If you add up all the other quarters, we win. But that third quarter really killed us.”
Young’s statement was as obvious as declaring the earth is round, or that the sky is blue. The Celtics outscored the Pacers 26-8 in the third, as Indiana missed its first 11 shots, committed five turnovers and didn’t even get credit for a field goal until the 3:28 mark of the period – and that came on a goaltending call.
Much was made after the game about Boston’s defense in the second half as a whole — and especially in that third quarter — after Indiana forgot how to score. In truth, though, the Pacers’ issues were just as much their own doing as they were anything the Celtics were doing to them.
According to ESPN’s Stats and Information, the Pacers shot 13 for 20 from the field (and 3 for 7 from 3-point range) on uncontested shots in the first half.
Not surprisingly, the second half numbers — 3 for 18 from the field, and 0 for 8 from 3-point range — were far, far worse.
“In the third quarter, we started off with two turnovers,” Pacers coach Nate McMillan said. “Then we had open looks that we didn’t knock down, and I thought we lost a little confidence.
“They got the momentum and never let that go.”
As the first half wore on, there were plenty of people inside TD Garden wondering whether the Celtics would find a way to generate that momentum. The absence of Smart, who is out for several more weeks with an oblique injury, loomed large; the Celtics, playing without one of the league’s best perimeter defenders and one of its most fiery competitors, looked a step slow, and oddly disengaged.
Perhaps it was as simple as the 1 p.m. ET start time Sunday afternoon. Perhaps it was Indiana’s defense, which — especially when Young was on the court — lived up to its earned reputation this season as one of the league’s best units.
But the truth is that this version of Indiana — the one without star guard Victor Oladipo, out for the season with a torn quad tendon he suffered Jan. 29 in Toronto — shouldn’t be good enough to beat the Celtics, or, frankly, make this a long series. Since the All-Star Break, Indiana is now 10-15 — the worst record of any playoff team in either conference.
As the Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers learned the hard way Saturday, the Orlando Magic and Brooklyn Nets both entered the playoffs playing at a higher level than Indiana was. The results this weekend certainly confirmed that to be true.
So what happens now? Boston’s improved energy and play in the second half certainly is one positive sign for the Celtics. When asked about his team after the game, Kyrie Irving said that ability to move on to the next thing, and not dwell on the past, was his biggest takeaway from the proceedings.
“We just had to turn that page,” Irving said. “It’s the next-play mentality. We weren’t sure or we weren’t doing the right things, but it’s a series. So we come out, any time in the game, runs can happen. Anyone can come in and make an impact and it just doesn’t have to be on the offensive end. Defensively we call can be in the right spots for each other and really impact and manage the game the way we want to and control the pace.
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“We know how physical they’re going to be. We know that they’re going to reach down, they’re going to slap down. They have incredible defenders on their team. They use their length very well. They control the paint. And those guys are very communicative. So we’ve just got to do the right things.
“But getting all those jitters out for the first game, I’m always happy just to get the feel-out game out of the way … now you can really see where you can improve, and where you can take advantage of weak spots.”
While Boston’s task for at least the next week will be focusing on, and trying to take advantage of, Indiana’s weak spots, what the Celtics need to be doing — at least in order to have the deep playoff run they have felt they are capable of all season — is shoring up their own. Barring some extremely unforeseen events, once the Celtics make it past Indiana they will be facing the Milwaukee Bucks, who have the NBA’s best record, best point differential and, most importantly, Giannis Antetokounmpo — the league’s best, and most valuable, player.
To beat the Bucks — and, ultimately, make it out of the East — Boston will need to be far better than it was Sunday.
But given how things started out in Toronto and Philadelphia this weekend, the Celtics will take a win, and a lead, over the alternative.