Game Preview: Celtics at Pacers
BOSTON – The Boston Celtics (32-27) are in hot pursuit of the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. A win over the Pacers (38-22) at 7 p.m. tonight in Indiana would give Boston a dramatic boost in the right direction.
Three straight wins have already given the Celtics some momentum and brought them to within 1.5 games of the fourth seed, which is currently occupied by the Chicago Bulls. In order to grab a fourth consecutive win, they’ll need to overcome one of the hottest teams in the NBA in Indiana.
The Pacers have won seven of their last 10 games and have the fourth-best record in the NBA (20-9) since the calendar turned over. The only teams in the league to have a better record since Jan. 1 are the Heat, Spurs and Nuggets.
Indiana made a jump last season from a mediocre squad into a dangerous playoff opponent. They have made another jump this season to become a legitimate Eastern Conference title contender.
This year’s jump is quite impressive considering that the Pacers were missing Danny Granger, whom many consider to be Indiana’s best player, until Feb. 23 with a knee injury. In his absence, Paul George turned himself into an All-Star and Indiana didn’t miss a beat.
Granger's return gives the Pacers now have four players in their main rotation who have been All-Stars. That rotation has helped the team win four of five games since Granger returned. However, Granger is not expected to play tonight due to soreness in that left knee.
Indiana may have a lot of momentum but they aren’t the only team that has been heating up since 2013 began. Boston has gone 18-11 since the New Year and has put itself in position to make a postseason run. The C’s have accomplished this in spite of losing three key players to season-ending injuries.
Boston’s three injured players were around to help the Celtics notch a win over the Pacers on Jan. 4. That 94-75 victory in TD Garden was evidence of what the Celts are capable of.
Boston’s defense dominated Indiana, as the Pacers shot a season-low 31.8 percent from the field. Only one Pacers player, Tyler Hansbrough, scored more than 10 points in the game.
Meanwhile, the Celtics had four players score at least 13 points, including 18 from Kevin Garnett. Garnett’s seven boards also helped Boston outrebound Indiana, the top rebounding team in the league, by a count of 49-47.
We’re unlikely to see all of those circumstances show face again tonight, but one thing we should expect is an incredible game. These are two of the hottest teams in the league and both are heating up for a playoff run.
Containing David West
David West, a player who nearly joined the Celtics prior to last season, has been a monster for the Pacers in 2012-13. He leads the team in scoring with 17.7 points per game and he’s also grabbing 7.6 rebounds per game.
West has been even more impressive of late. He has put up averages of 22.4 PPG and 7.8 RPG over his last five contests while shooting 54.8 percent from the field. That stretch includes a 31-point game against the Bulls on Sunday night.
There is no doubt that West is a lot to handle. He can score on the block, he can hit the mid-range jumper, and he’s built like a rock. Boston’s big men, particularly Brandon Bass and Kevin Garnett, will certainly have their hands full.
The Celtics were able to handle the Pacers in January thanks to a big man rotation that consisted of Garnett, Bass, Jason Collins and Jared Sullinger. The bad news is that the latter two of those players are no longer playing for the team.
Collins was traded on Feb. 21 and Sullinger is out for the season with a back injury. Their absence leaves Garnett, Bass and Chris Wilcox as the only true big men in Boston’s rotation.
Doc Rivers will be hit with a tough decision tonight. Does he continue to play small ball, with Jeff Green and Paul Pierce periodically seeing minutes at power forward? Does he open up the rotation and finally use recently signed big men D.J. White and Shavlik Randolph? We'll have the answers by the end of tonight.
The Pacers might be the most rugged team in the league. They have impressive athletes on their roster like George and Granger, but they win because of their physicality, their defense, and their willingness to get dirty.
Boston employed that type of mindset back in January when it outmuscled the Pacers. The Celtics didn’t just keep up with the Pacers; they pushed them around. Indiana was in a state of shock throughout the game.
As noted earlier in this piece, the Celtics’ frontline looks a lot different nowadays than it did in January. However, that shouldn’t prevent the current pieces from getting a little dirty.