BOSTON — For as much respect as the players and coaches have paid the Indiana Pacers publicly, the Boston Celtics brass is unconcerned with their first-round opponent privately. They are confident they can compete with the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals and hopeful they can find their way to the Finals to salvage an otherwise miserable season.
Except, with all things Celtics this year, the blueprint drawn up by the front office bears little resemblance to the product on the court. It took 37 points from Kyrie Irving, another 26 from Jayson Tatum and a second straight double-digit comeback for Boston to handle the Victor Oladipo-less Pacers, and even then the 99-91 final felt like it could have gone the other way.
The Celtics now lead the series 2-0 and remain as confounding as a Kyrie astronomy class. Had a knee injury not cut Oladipo’s season short in late January, this series might look a whole lot different, and presumably the playoffs are only going to get more difficult from here on out — first in Indiana this weekend, and then against Giannis Antetokounmpo in the second round.
“A win is a win,” said Celtics guard Terry Rozier, who totaled four points and six assists off the bench. “You’ve got to take it however you’re going to get it. … We’ve got to come with more fight going into their house, because obviously a lot of things come into play when they’re at home.”
This looked nothing like Game 1, at least from the start, when the Celtics allowed 33 points in the opening quarter — four more than they had relinquished in the entirety of the second half on Sunday. The Pacers shot 65 percent from the field in the frame against a Boston defense that looked to be infected by the same stomach bug that left Al Horford a game-time decision.
Horford did start and started sluggishly, earning a spot on the bench alongside two other Celtics starters when the Pacers blitzed them for a 10-0 run midway through the first quarter. Bojan Bogdanovic matched his Game 1 bucket output in the opening seven minutes, making four of his first five shots and staking Indiana to a three-possession lead that should have been more.
At times, this looked like a lot of other Celtics games this season, in that it was a microcosm of this entire maddening campaign. They looked equal parts explosive and vulnerable. Seemingly the only thing capable of stopping Irving were the possessions that Rozier and Marcus Morris avoided passing him the ball. Boston found a lineup willing and able to work in unison — Irving, Horford, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum and Daniel Theis — at least long enough to take a 52-50 lead into halftime on the strength of 30 combined points between Irving and Tatum.
Boston can roll out superior talent at every position in this series, so the score should tilt its way, even when the Pacers shoot 50 percent from the field, even when the Celtics are incapable of playing cohesively and even when Horford is sick. It is not this series they are concerned about. The Celtics understand that they can’t just play the odds in later rounds, should they advance.
“We’re just trying to be more consistent,” Celtics center Aron Baynes told Yahoo Sports when asked if he’s noticed a sea change from the ebbs and flows of their regular season to the first two games against the Pacers. “Every play, every possession, we’re trying to value it more.”
Irving concurred, believing all the “bulls---” of Boston’s regular season would peel off to reveal a team that sets screens, dives for loose balls and collectively competes with the league’s best.
Yet, the third quarter started just as the first. Wes Matthews, Darren Collison and the lot of hardworking Hoosiers outperformed expectations. That’s the microcosm of their season. The result was a double-digit lead midway through the third that settled at 11 by quarter’s end.
Everyone on Boston but Irving struggled to score. Then, Irving sat to start the fourth quarter, and everyone on Boston somehow started scoring. Rozier helped trim Indiana’s edge to 82-78, and the two faces of these Jekyll-and-Hyde Celtics had revealed themselves — the one that recognizes there is no path to title contention without Irving, and the other that remembers how close they came last year to reaching the Finals without him. These forces are constantly tugging at each other, and in between lies the answers to all our questions about Boston.
As if on cue, Irving reminded everyone why the Celtics need his skill to get where they want to go. He re-entered the game with 7:35 left and proceeded to score eight straight points, giving Boston the lead back for the first time since they relinquished it 15 seconds into the second half.
“When he gets on a run like that,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens, “he’s going to draw even more attention than he already draws, which is as much as anybody draws in the league.”
Led by a resurgent Horford, who battled illness and Indiana double teams all night, Boston tightened its defense, holding the Pacers to 11 straight misses in the fourth quarter. It’s hard not to think about what might have been were Oladipo available to counter Irving’s closing ability.
“We can’t really dwell on that, to be honest. He’s not here, and we have more than enough to win games,” Collison told Yahoo Sports. Indiana has demonstrated as much. “Obviously,” added Collison. “We’ve been good at home all season long, so if we play with that same effort and we play the same way we’ve been playing, there’s not doubt in my mind we can tie this series.”
That’s a tall order when Irving stands in the way. The Boston crowd rained MVP chants down on the All-Star point guard, as if to plead he stay in free agency this summer. They understand how important he is to the Celtics’ success, and the hope is that he recognizes how important they can be to his. The most encouraging sign of these first two playoff games may be Irving’s mood.
“I’m just happy to be part of the lineage of great players who have put on some unbelievable performances here in the TD as well as the old Garden,” said Irving, who added seven assists and six rebounds. “It felt good to be here in this position, playing in this arena. It’s been a long journey, having those two knee surgeries and watching the team last year, and finally getting a chance to lace them up for the Boston Celtics in the NBA playoffs, there’s nothing like it.”
Irving praised Rozier, arguably the most frustrating of a roster full of frustrating Celtics, and referred to his teammates as his “brothers.” That said, he knows full well that they have achieved little beyond holding homecourt in a series against the undermanned team that stands in their way, and Friday’s road game will be the first of plenty more tests of their character.
In the end, this looked a lot like Game 1. It was ugly at times and only occasionally beautiful. The Celtics fought back from a double-digit deficit and played what has been the NBA’s best defense through two playoff games. That’s the good news. The bad news: Those pesky Pacers — the ones the Celtics privately aren’t sweating and publicly can’t put away — forced them to play to the final buzzer. Boston’s issues in this inconsistent season are far from solved.
Three straight 3-pointers — one from Matthews and two by Bogdanovic — handed the lead back to Indiana entering the final minute. It was Tatum who delivered the death blow in this game, making the triple that put the Celtics up 92-91 with 50 ticks left. The 21-year-old assisted and dunked two more buckets in the last 12 seconds. He put on a show of his own for the Garden crowd — and for Irving, who, if he wants to stay in Boston, may have to choose between growing alongside Tatum or including him in a trade package for Anthony Davis. It has long felt like Boston’s success this postseason will swing Irving’s free agency decision in July.
Those are problems for another day. These Celtics, for whom nothing comes easy, have plenty left to prove, and they are halfway to a series they really care about, with Irving in full bloom.
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