Game Preview: Pacers at Celtics
As the Boston Celtics host the Eastern Conference's top team after the West leader handed them a fifth straight loss, Paul George and the Indiana Pacers try to avoid a fifth consecutive defeat in this series Friday night.
This rivalry fell heavily in the Celtics' favor when Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen were acquired to join Paul Pierce for the 2007-08 season, with Indiana since losing nine of 10 meetings in Boston and 15 of 20 overall since then. That stretch includes defeats in both matchups last season despite Allen having left for Miami, but with Garnett and Pierce now in Brooklyn as the Celtics rebuild, the Pacers are now the team to beat.
Indiana shares the league's best record with San Antonio, while Boston is rebounding from a 104-93 loss to the Spurs on Wednesday.
George has averaged only 10.8 points on 25.9 percent shooting during Indiana's four-game skid against Boston, but he enters this matchup fifth in the NBA at 24.4 points per game.
"He's one of the best in the league and I don't say that just because he's my teammate," guard George Hill said. "It's just the way he plays on both ends of the floor. He wants to match up with the best player on the other team. To have that player on your team makes things a lot easier."
Those comments came after George made three free throws with 5.2 seconds left in regulation and scored nine of his season-high 35 in overtime of a 103-96 win in New York on Wednesday.
"Even as he has become our go-to guy, he's still very new at crunch time moments for us and he showed another step, to be able to make big plays at crunch time," coach Frank Vogel said.
George, though, was quick to credit his teammates after a game in which Indiana trailed for most of regulation and held the Knicks to 37.9 percent shooting. It was the Pacers' first game after their first loss, 110-94 at Chicago on Saturday when George had his worst offensive performance with 12 points on 3-of-14 shooting.
"That's the Pacers," George said after Wednesday's win. "To sum it all up and what we do and what our identity is - everybody contributes and that was the case tonight."
While Indiana is holding teams to 87.5 points per game, the Celtics have allowed their last four opponents to score at least 104. They haven't let five straight reach 100 since April 2010.
First-year coach Brad Stevens, though, wasn't discouraged by the latest loss. Besides Jared Sullinger having 19 points and a career-high 17 rebounds in his first start of the season, Boston had a second-half lead on a Spurs squad which has now won eight straight.
"The team that played tonight could be a really fun group to build with," Stevens said. "I think that's what you take from here. We talked about this early in the year. There's going to be nights where we measure progress a little bit differently."
David West may be particularly happy Garnett is gone from Boston. West averaged 10.5 points on 8-of-28 shooting in two meetings last season while Garnett scored 18 in each.