BOSTON – Al Horford and the Boston Celtics expected to see the toughest version of one of the most physical teams in the NBA Friday night, as they duked it out with the Indiana Pacers in a battle for fourth place in the Eastern Conference. Sure, enough the Pacers came into TD Garden dealing punch after punch.
“We took several, yeah,” Al Horford later confirmed with an exhausted half-smile.
However, for each punch the C’s received, they hit back even harder. For every rally that the Pacers had in them, Boston had an answer, as it fought all the way to the finish for a 114-112 win.
In what was likely a preview game for the first round of the Playoffs, this was exactly the type of effort that Horford wanted to see out of his group.
“That team plays really hard, they play really well,” he said of the Pacers. “And the fact that we were able to respond and stay poised, I thought was very good for our group.”
Being able to match Indiana’s toughness was the main matter that C’s coach Brad Stevens highlighted during his pregame press conference, noting multiple times how physical this Pacers team is.
“I think they’re the litmus test for that,” he reiterated after the game. “I think they play as hard and physical as anybody.”
Indiana showed off that toughness throughout Friday night’s matchup, and was sure to take advantage of physical mismatches whenever there was an opportunity to do so.
“Right when we went small, they decided to go right to the post,” said Stevens. “They didn’t waste time, they didn’t waste possessions. We tried to buy a few minutes there without our double bigs and it was hard. So, at the end of the day, they put us in a lot of tough spots.”
As tough as those spots were, the Celtics found a way to fight back time and time again.
“We just had to be resilient,” said Kyrie Irving, who scored 30 points including the game-winning lay-up with half of a second remaining in regulation. “They do a great job mucking up the game, being in the paint, Myles Turner (whom Irving beat to the basket on his game-winning shot) does a great job of coming over and contesting a lot of shots. But (Aron) Baynes was in the middle of the paint tonight, so it was hard for him to come over and commit to a few of our layups, which enabled me to get a few easy ones where he sealed Myles. We did a great job tonight of just playing with that pace and playing with that physicality to match theirs.”
Not only did the Celtics match Indy’s physicality, but in many ways, they exceeded it. Boston won the rebounding battle, 43-41, it outscored the Pacers 54-40 in the paint, it produced 16 second-chance points, largely thanks to the six offensive rebounds that Baynes and Horford contributed, and its starting backcourt of Irving and Marcus Smart snagged a total of seven steals.
With all of those efforts combined, the Celtics were able to out-battle one of the league’s most physical teams in a critical game that could help determine playoff seeding and primary location for the first round.
“It was definitely a great feel-out game, if you want to call it, for the Playoffs,” Irving said. “Home-court advantage was at stake and we see them again one more time (next Friday in Indianapolis). We’ll see how that goes and just keep on getting better for the rest of the regular season.”
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