The Boston Celtics used a late run to power themselves to a 2-0 series lead over the Indiana Pacers.
After one of the ugliest games in recent playoff memory, Game 2 between Boston and Indiana felt at times like a complete reversal of Game 1 — and still, neither team managed more than 1.07 points per possession. The Pacers, who dictated tempo and style for three quarters, had the game in its grasp, but another brutal offensive quarter doomed them again as Kyrie Irving exerted full control over the final 18 minutes.
The series will move to Indiana on Friday, and still both teams have yet to find their best selves. Despite an 0-2 deficit, Indiana has positioned itself to win both games and could very well even the series at home. The Celtics, meanwhile, have yet to reach their offensive peak this season, and if they find it in Indianapolis, could render a trip back to Boston unnecessary.
The gap in star talent is vast. The Pacers outplayed Boston for most of the contest, executing sets with purpose and verve while swarming on defense and denying Boston the sort of continuity it needed to have any success on offense. They aggressively walled off the paint while managing to recover to shooters, thus forcing Boston into low-percentage jumpers and contested layups. The Celtics seemed flummoxed early on by Indiana’s activity and togetherness, and the Pacers were quicker to the ball on both ends of the floor.
In the fourth quarter, however, the game tilted on the axis on which Boston holds the biggest advantage this series: star talent. Irving was the only Celtic that could reliably create quality looks, but he proved enough to pull Boston through in the end. Indiana executed its defense and took away most of his looks at the rim, but was powerless to stop Irving, who willed the Celtics back into the game with a series of jumpers that, no matter how tightly contested, seemed destined to go in. Jayson Tatum eventually got comfortable after struggling to create separation for the better part of three quarters and finished the Pacers off after Irving did most of the heavy lifting.
The visitors simply didn’t have the talent to weather that sort of onslaught and a nearly eight-minute drought in the fourth quarter. Bojan Bogdanović did his best to keep his team in it, netting 23 points and a couple of late, go-ahead daggers, but without an answer for Irving, Indiana had no one to match him on the other end. If Irving and Tatum get rolling at the same time, the Pacers have little to counter with, especially when Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis combine to score nine points. One can only wonder what difference a healthy Victor Oladipo would make, both in stabilizing Indiana’s offense and slowing down Boston’s. Without him, the Pacers may not have anyone who can close that gap.
Boston’s offense lacked fluidity. The team’s hot start and Irving’s second-half scoring flurry aside, the Celtic offense struggled for much of the night, even with Irving and Tatum on the floor. While Indiana sprung Bogdanović open with off-ball screens and used Sabonis’ passing as a fulcrum, Boston settled for difficult looks off of little ball movement. Even Tatum, who finished with 26 points on 20 shots, often ground possessions to a halt trying to isolate after switches or dance his way into contested jumpers. Marcus Morris and Jaylen Brown rarely got downhill, while the Pacers crowded Al Horford as he scanned the floor for passing lanes.
Save for Irving, every Celtic is better when he is decisive. Tatum is at his best shooting off the catch or taking a hard dribble into something better; Jaylen Brown thrives when he attacks closeouts; Morris is far more valuable spacing the floor than he is commandeering possessions from the mid-range. The Celtics tend to profit when those three go straight into their moves rather than playing with their defenders, as they did during their opening spurt, during which Tatum confidently sunk two 3s in semi-transition.
Irving helps quench many of Boston’s dry spells, but better teams than the Pacers will demand cohesion from an offense that occasionally struggles to find it. It feels as though Boston has that potential to heighten its continuity, if only it had the will.
Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward’s fits are becoming clearer. With Marcus Smart sidelined and Morris struggling, Brad Stevens closed Wednesday night’s game with the unit of Irving, Hayward, Brown, Tatum and Horford — a group the Celtics yet to see mesh since Hayward and Irving joined the club in 2017. Brown and Hayward were the casualties of a decision that moved Morris and Smart into the starting unit after Boston’s initial unit failed to jell, but on Wednesday, both fit as cleanly with the rest of the starters as they have all season.
Brown wreaked havoc on defense for 27 minutes as Hayward carefully picked his spots as a scorer and facilitator. Neither forced the issue except when it was wise to do so; Hayward, who had five assists, unleashed some of the arrhythmic drives from his Utah days while Brown grabbed two key offensive rebounds late. In those roles – Brown as an energetic defender and slasher, Hayward as a secondary playmaker – the two wings round out the lineup, giving Boston shooting and playmaking at every position. They make Horford’s passes all the more dangerous and Tatum’s drives even more devastating. They alleviate just enough pressure from Irving’s shoulders for the point guard to assert himself at the ends of games.
Whether Stevens re-inserts Hayward and Brown into the starting unit remains to be seen, but regardless of who starts, Boston needs those two at their best and that five-man group to harmonize. Wednesday was a glimpse at what that might look like.