Pacers Matchup May Have Awoken a Sleeping Giant in Boston

INDIANAPOLIS – A first-round matchup with the Indiana Pacers might be exactly what the Boston Celtics needed.

It appears to have awoken a sleeping giant.

Boston has built a commanding 3-0 series lead over Indiana and is arguably playing its best long-term basketball of the season. Including its 3-0 start to the Playoffs, Boston has won nine of its last 11 games, including five against Indiana, which may not be entirely coincidental.

Brad Stevens has spoken before all five games against the Pacers about their excellent physicality and effort levels. They are much like the Celtics of Stevens’ early tenure in Boston: they play incredibly hard, they execute well, and they never back down.

The only way to succeed against a team like that is to mirror such characteristics. Doing so would have been a sizable task for Boston throughout the regular season, while it regularly struggled in those areas. But now, after facing Indiana five times in three weeks, the Celtics appear to have turned those characteristics into hallmark traits of their own.

Boston has not only matched the Pacers in physicality and effort, but it has surpassed them. As Brad Stevens indicated Saturday afternoon, this trend has occurred out of pure necessity against Indiana.

“I think that you know if you don’t bring it, and you know you’re going to get punished, there’s a fear factor there or a respect factor there that you need to make sure that you’re playing low, playing in a stance,” he said. “Because otherwise, you’ll get knocked around.”

The Celtics have been doing the knocking over the last three-plus weeks, including the first three games of this series. That timeline just so happens to coincide with a personnel decision that Stevens made on March 26, right around when it became clear that the C’s and the Pacers would be meeting in the first round of the Playoffs, and just three days before the teams met in a critical game to determine home-court advantage for the series.

Stevens decided to start Aron Baynes alongside Al Horford in Boston’s frontcourt. Since that date, Boston’s defense and rebounding numbers have both been improving. The team has logged an absurd defensive rating of 91.9 during the postseason – about 15 points better than its regular-season mark.

Horford attributes those trends and Boston’s improved physicality to the lineup change.

“I think that we’re playing bigger for a lot of the time, so having Baynes out there with me probably allows us to be more physical,” Horford said.

With that lineup now set in stone, Boston now has a rhythm and a confidence that, simply put, did not exist throughout the regular season. Every player seems to now know his role. Every player is now excelling in his role.

They’re all doing so with heightened levels of physicality and effort that has been brought out by their current opponent.

This series is certainly not over, and Boston knows that. The old adage is that a close-out game is the hardest game of a series.

If, however, the Celtics do close out this series in the near or immediate future, their next opponent will have a rolling force of physicality and effort coming at it, with BOSTON written across its chest.

They can thank the Pacers for that.

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