INDIANAPOLIS – The Boston Celtics picked the right time to make their biggest statement of the season. With fourth place and home-court advantage for the first round of the Playoffs on the line Friday night, Boston dominated the fifth-place Indiana Pacers on their home court for nearly 48 minutes, leading to a 117-97 win.
“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 their physicality, and really setting the tone of the game,” said Kyrie Irving, who logged 17 points and six assists during 27 minutes of action. “When we do that, we’re pretty tough to beat, especially when guys are being aggressive going to the basket. We got early in the bonus in the second and third quarters, so we got to the free throw line and really made them play our pace of game. So, I’m just really, really happy with that.”
There was a great deal of buildup leading into the matchup, considering where the two teams sat in the standings. Boston and Indy went in with identical, 47-32 records, though the Celtics had the tiebreaker with a 2-1 advantage in the season series. A loss would have bumped Boston back into fifth place, while a win would give them outstanding odds to capture the fourth seed.
The game lived up to its billing through the first quarter, as the C’s and Pacers battled back and forth at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Indiana had established a 36-35 lead by the 8:25 mark of the second frame, but then Boston went on a game-changing, 23-11 run to carry it into halftime with a 58-47 advantage.
From there, the Celtics coasted past the Pacers to victory lane, leading by as many as 25 points in the process. The win marked Boston’s third straight against Indiana, including its second in the last eight days. That provided the team with a nice confidence boost looking ahead, as they will most certainly match up against the Pacers later next week in the first round of the Playoffs.
“The game plan was just really solid,” said Al Horford, who finished with 11 points and seven rebounds in 27 minutes of play. “I thought coach (Brad Stevens) did a great job with everything. It’s going to take us playing at our best to have any chance against this team, because that team is a very tough team. They just continue to compete, and this was one of our better games of the season by far.”
What made the Celtics so successful was how they approached each possession: with extraordinary precision.
“I think that’s the way you have to play against Indiana,” said Stevens. “I think they’re really tough. That wasn’t their best game, and we know that. But if you’re not locked in in the moment against them, they’ll go on a run or they’ll beat you up, and we just have to maintain that throughout the course of the game.”
For Nate McMillan’s group, this game served as an eye-opener heading into the postseason.
“They make you work,” Indiana’s head coach said of the C’s. “They’re long, they’re athletic, they’re physical. We missed some shots and some of those were at the rim, but they made us work. We’ve got to do a better job of trying to screen these guys and get free. A lot of it was taking the ball out of the net and playing a set defense. We weren’t getting a lot of stops. When you’re not getting stops and you’re playing against a set defense like that, it’s going to be tough to score.”
One of the reasons why the Celtics were so difficult to counter was that they had so many different players who contributed to the cause. There was Jayson Tatum, providing 11 of his game-high 22 points in the second quarter to spark Boston’s biggest run of the game. There was Gordon Hayward, who took nine shot attempts and didn’t miss once. There was Aron Baynes, delivering his third consecutive double-double of 11 points and 11 rebounds. And there were guys like Brad Wanamaker (nine points, three assists and two rebounds), who stepped up to help fill the voids of Jaylen Brown (back spasms) and Terry Rozier (left midway through game with an illness).
The most promising aspect of it all for Boston was that it was a continuation of its uphill climb of late. The team has now won five of its last six games, including four against playoff contending teams.
“I think we’ve certainly played well these last games here, and I think we’ve really been locked in defensively,” said Hayward. “It’s going well for us and we’ve got to continue.”
If Friday’s statement win in Indianapolis serves as any indication, then these Celtics shouldn’t have a problem continuing their strong play into the postseason. As long as they keep approaching each possession with purpose, this team, like Irving said, should be very tough to beat.
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