INDIANAPOLIS — As the Boston Celtics have meandered their way through the regular season — failing to live up to their lofty preseason expectations — many around the NBA have been ready to abandon them as a potential option to emerge from the East. At some point, the reasoning goes, the inconsistencies that have plagued the Celtics all season will wind up catching up with them, and officially render this season a disappointment.
But despite the constant lackadaisical approach that has plagued Boston all season, there still remains time for the Celtics to sort themselves out. And, for those looking for reasons to believe the Celtics can have the kind of year they were expected to, Friday night’s 117-97 victory over the Pacers was a reminder of what Boston can be at its best.
This was, without question, the biggest game of the season for the Celtics. Barring a dramatic collapse by the Philadelphia 76ers, these two teams will meet in the first round of the playoffs, and the winner of Friday’s game was all-but guaranteed of having home-court advantage for that series.
The Pacers very well may have been the third seed in the East this season if they hadn’t lost All-Star guard Victor Oladipo for the season with a torn quad tendon back in January. Indiana, for all of its tenacity and effort on a nightly basis, simply lacks the ceiling of the Celtics or the other true top-tier teams in the East.
Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean they’ll be an easy out — especially if given the benefit of homecourt. That meant Friday night’s game was crucial for Boston not only to make its path out of the first round easier, but also to avoid having to advance through three rounds of the playoffs as the lower seeded team to make it out of the East.
“I think they’re really tough,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said of the Pacers. “That wasn’t their best game and we know that. If you’re not locked in in the moment against them, they’ll go on a run or they’ll beat you up.”
That is why the way the Celtics came out and played this game was such an encouraging sign, for those who still believe Boston should be considered an Eastern Conference contender. Against a Pacers team with limited scoring options, Boston made Indiana’s lives exceedingly difficult, and never gave the Pacers a chance to get going. If it wasn’t for some smart, timely backcuts by Indiana in the first half, this game could’ve been a blowout by halftime.
Instead, the Celtics slowly and methodically took control as the game wore on. Kyrie Irving was forced into difficult shots by Indiana — but made them, as he usually does (and as the Pacers don’t have anyone to). Gordon Hayward continued his recent string of strong play, making all nine shots he took as he scored 21 points, and repeatedly making good things happen by getting into the wary of Indiana’s defense.
“That’s a lot of what I did when I was in Utah, finishing in the lane with different types of finishes off one foot, two feet, fade-back, things like that,” Hayward said. “Some is slowly coming back, some is more explosive and can handle the contact a little better, staying on balance. It’s coming together nicely and I have to continue to attack and get to the line.”
Meanwhile, Al Horford once again was a huge difference maker for Boston, finishing plus-20 (second only to Hayward’s plus-23) and giving Indiana fits with his ability to space the floor and knock down shots.
This is the version of Boston that was supposed to be around all season long — the one that was supposed to be in the mix for the top seed in the East, not or scratching and clawing for home court advantage in the first round with a couple of games to go in the regular season.
“Much more purpose from the group,” Horford said, when asked about Boston’s level of play lately, as the Celtics have won three in a row, and five of their past six. “The focus level has been much better, and that’s encouraging to see.”
There have been too many ups-and-downs in this roller coaster of a season in Boston, too much scar tissue built up over the past six months to say that everything is now fine, and that the Celtics are ready to make the run they are supposed to.
On a night when the Celtics needed to show up, though, they did. Given how this season has gone, that isn’t nothing.
“We got the win,” Irving said. “That’s all that matters. We did what it took to get a convincing win like we did tonight by playing hard, doing the right things, staying aggressive on the defensive end, matching the physicality and really setting the tone of the game.
“When we do that, we’re pretty tough to beat.”
It’s a rather simple formula, isn’t it? Nothing about this Celtics season, though, has been simple. Yet, despite all that, the Celtics still have the opportunity to achieve all they hoped to this season lying before them.
Friday’s win was an indication that the team Boston was supposed to be does, somehow, reside within the Celtics. Whether this is a one time thing, or an indication of things to come, is what will determine what happens next: the breakthrough Boston’s backers have been waiting for, or the ignominious ending their play this season has predicted will take place.