Celtics-Pacers preview: Why Boston is a strong favorite to advance to the NBA Finals

The top-seeded Boston Celtics (64-18) will face the sixth-seeded Indiana Pacers (47-35) in the 2024 Eastern Conference finals. Their last NBA playoff meeting occurred in 2019, when the Celtics swept the Pacers. This past December, Indiana defeated Boston in the quarterfinals of the in-season tournament.

Following an upset loss to the eighth-seeded Miami Heat in the 2023 Eastern Conference finals, Boston is back, making its third straight appearance in the third round of the playoffs — and sixth in eight seasons.

In between, the Celtics won a league-best 64 regular-season games, 14 more than anyone else in the East, and logged a net rating of +11.7, third-highest in NBA history (trailing only Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls). Boston fielded the best top six in basketball, full of current and former All-Star-caliber contributors.

Boston faced little resistance through the first two rounds of the playoffs. The Heat were without the injured Jimmy Butler and Terry Rozier for the entirety of the opening round. Likewise, the Cleveland Cavaliers did not have Jarrett Allen for the entire conference semifinals and Donovan Mitchell for Games 4 and 5. The Celtics disposed of both teams in five games, posting an even better net rating of +12.8.

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - DECEMBER 04: Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics handles the ball while being guarded by Tyrese Haliburton #0 of the Indiana Pacers in the first quarter during the NBA In-Season Tournament at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on December 04, 2023 in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
Jayson Tatum and the Celtics will be well-rested for the East finals. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

All-Star point guard Tyrese Haliburton began the season as an early MVP candidate for the young, run-and-gun Pacers, leading them to the championship game of the inaugural in-season tournament. A left hamstring injury derailed the second half of his campaign, right around the time Indiana acquired two-time All-NBA forward Pascal Siakam from the Toronto Raptors. The team won 47 games and finished the regular season rated second in offense (120.5 points per 100 possessions) — behind only these Celtics.

It never quite felt like the Pacers hit their stride in the final few months of the regular season, but a first-round playoff matchup against the Giannis Antetokounmpo-less Milwaukee Bucks primed their confidence. The Bucks were also without Damian Lillard for two of the six games in the series. Given how well the Pacers performed against a healthy Milwaukee roster during the regular season, they may have won anyhow, since they scored a remarkable 128.8 points per 100 possessions in their four victories.

Then came the New York Knicks, who were within an Andrew Nembhard 3-pointer of taking a 3-0 lead in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Knicks were a traveling infirmary. Already without Julius Randle and Bojan Bogdanović, they lost Mitchell Robinson and OG Anunoby in the first two games of the series. Jalen Brunson endured the best-of-seven set on a bad foot and left with a broken hand. Even Josh Hart, who was playing 48 minutes a night in the absence of any depth, suffered an abdominal strain in a Game 6 loss.

Still, Indiana walked into Madison Square Garden and rained hellfire on the Knicks in Game 7, shooting 67.1% from the field and 54.2% from distance to silence the crowd. When the dust settled, the Pacers scored another 129.2 points per 100 possessions in four wins against New York, and we are still not sure if they have played their best ball — much like the Celtics — on a playoff road paved smoothly for them.

Boston won its regular-season series against Indiana, 3-2.

It is difficult to take much from their five games, since the first four occurred before the Pacers traded for Siakam. In Indiana's two victories, including December's in-season tournament quarterfinal, it shot 19-for-40 from 3-point range each time and got a combined average of 49 points from Buddy Hield, Bruce Brown and Bennedict Mathurin, none of whom is available any longer to the Pacers in this series.

Haliburton also missed Indiana's 51-point loss to the Celtics on Nov. 1.

Boston was without Kristaps Porziņģis for its first loss to Indiana and Jayson Tatum for the second. According to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, the Celtics will be without Porziņģis, who is rehabbing the right calf he strained in the opening round of the playoffs, for the first two games of the conference finals.

The biggest takeaway from their five games against each other? The winning team made an average of 18.2 3-pointers on 47% shooting in victory. The losing team averaged 10.8 3s on 28% shooting in defeat.

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - JANUARY 06: Tyrese Haliburton #0 of the Indiana Pacers dribbles the ball while being guarded by Derrick White #9 of the Boston Celtics in the first quarter at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on January 06, 2024 in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
Tyrese Haliburton will have his hands full with Boston's star guards. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Tyrese Haliburton vs. Boston's guards

Haliburton's statistical line in an incredible in-season tournament quarterfinal performance on Dec. 4:

  • 26 PTS (55.6 FG%, 45.5 3P%), 10 REB, 13 AST (0 TO)

His average line in three other appearances against Boston this season:

  • 12.3 PTS (34.2 FG%, 23.5 3P%), 3.7 REB, 7.7 AST (2.3 TO)

On the whole, that is a win for All-Defensive guards Derrick White and Jrue Holiday. White had the most success opposite Haliburton, even as the Pacers point guard collected 20 points (on 6-for-13 shooting) and nine assists (against two turnovers) in 12:29 opposite him. Indiana only scored 99.7 points per 100 possessions in that timespan. Something of the reverse was true when Holiday defended Haliburton.

Boston also found success in limited minutes with Jaylen Brown's length on Haliburton. The Celtics have options to throw into the engine of the Pacers' potent offense. To keep the motor running, expect the Pacers to hunt 38-year-old big man Al Horford, especially if Myles Turner is on the other end of the pick-and-roll.

Boston has counters, shifting Jayson Tatum onto Turner and hiding Horford elsewhere, but Haliburton hounding weak spots — as early in the shot clock as possible — will be at the root of everything Indiana is trying to do. Slow him, and the offense slows with him. To wit: In the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Pacers shot 53% in the initial 17 seconds of the shot clock and just 41% in the final seven seconds.

Conversely, where does Indiana hide Haliburton on defense? The Celtics will hunt him, too. He spent the bulk of his time on White or Holiday, and both showed at points in the first two rounds that their aggression can yield positive results. Making Haliburton work on that end of the floor might also serve as an additional resource for slowing him down offensively. The 24-year-old has a heavy burden to carry.

Pascal Siakam's poise

The season averages of Boston's All-Star wings against Indiana during the regular season:

  • Tatum (4 games): 32.5 PTS (58/49/71), 11 REB, 5.8 AST (2.5 TO)

  • Brown (5 games): 28.4 PTS (61/32/67), 6.2 REB, 1.2 AST (2.6 TO)

That is 60 points per game between them. Siakam can only guard one. He was present for a single one of Indiana's games against the Celtics this season, and the combination of Tatum and Brown produced 55 points (on 62% shooting from the field), 13 rebounds and nine assists (against two turnovers). Not great!

That said, according to the NBA's tracking data, Siakam spent eight minutes over four games for the Raptors and Pacers defending Tatum during the regular season. Tatum scored just two points on five shots in that span, as the Celtics scored 88.9 points per 100 possessions. Siakam spent more time defending Brown, who finished with 21 points on 12 shots in 11:35, as Boston scored 127 points per 100.

Brown's performance was more indicative of Siakam's effort against Boston's wings in the 2020 Eastern Conference semifinals, when the Celtics completely neutralized their fellow rising star. Siakam averaged 14.9 points on 38.2% shooting from the field (12.5% from 3) in that series. He was wildly overmatched.

Through two rounds in these playoffs, though, Siakam has been far better, averaging an efficient 20.1 points. He has also been primarily defended by Bobby Portis and Josh Hart. This will mark Siakam's biggest postseason test since those 2020 conference semis, and his responsibility might be even greater, as both Tatum and Brown have both developed into All-NBA players. Has he developed enough in four years to slow one of them down defensively and also go toe-to-toe with either of them offensively?

Celtics in 5

Boston's rotation is playoff proven, with or without Porziņģis. The Celtics have been on this stage six times in the past eight seasons, and the Pacers will be making their first conference finals appearance in a decade. While Siakam has championship experience, that disparity in experience counts for plenty.

Just as concerning for Indiana: Its offense is its greatest asset, and Boston's was even better during the regular season. Meanwhile, Indiana has the worst defense left in the playoffs, and Boston has the best.

Boston Celtics (-900)
Indiana Pacers (+600)

Game 1: Tue., May 21 @ Boston (8 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Game 2: Thu., May 23 @ Boston (8 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Game 3: Sat., May 25 @ Indiana (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC)
Game 4: Mon., May 27 @ Indiana (8 p.m. ET, ESPN)
*Game 5: Wed., May 29 @ Boston (8 p.m. ET, ESPN)
*Game 6: Fri., May 31 @ Indiana (8 p.m. ET, ESPN)
*Game 7: Sun., June 2 @ Boston (8 p.m. ET, ESPN)

*if necessary