2024 Playoffs: East Finals | Celtics (1) vs. Pacers (6)

Celtics-Pacers: 4 things to look for in Game 4 of East Finals

Indiana could look for even more offense from an unexpected source, while Boston's small lineups haven't quite worked out.

More than 150 NBA teams have trailed 3-0 in a best-of-7 series. None of them survived. Has Indiana shown enough to think they could be the 1st?

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INDIANAPOLIS — No team in NBA history has rallied from a 3-0 deficit to win a best-of-seven playoff series. But four have come back to force a Game 7, with the last being the Boston Celtics, who did it a year ago in the Eastern Conference Finals.

In these Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics are up 3-0, and they know the job is not done.

“It’s a way different feeling, obviously,” Derrick White said on Sunday about being up 3-0. “But you just understand that anything can change after one game. So you can’t relax.”

Here are some things to keep an eye out for as the Celtics try to close out the Indiana Pacers in Game 4 on Monday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).

1. How Haliburton’s absence changes the Pacers … defensively

Game 2 of this series was the one that wasn’t close. And it wasn’t close because the Celtics had their most efficient offensive performance (126 points on 94 possessions) of the playoffs.

It was as purposeful of an offensive performance as we’ve seen from the Celtics, who relentlessly attacked the weaknesses in the Indiana defense. Those weaknesses began with Tyrese Haliburton, who was consistently put into screening action involving Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown.

With Haliburton out in Game 3, the Pacers switched more screens, and the Celtics had to find other ways to gain advantages and create good shots. They certainly attacked other weaknesses, namely Doug McDermott and Ben Sheppard. Boston also made Myles Turner work a little more, with Al Horford setting 23 ball screens, the most he’s set in the playoffs and tied for the second most he’s set all season in 78 total games.

“Everything depends on the coverage and the matchup,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said Sunday. “The way you attack and the type of spacing that you have and the reads you have are going to be different because the coverage is different.

“It’s more about that, finding the advantage and making sure we can exploit it as a team.”

Haliburton was listed as questionable on the initial injury report for Game 4. If he plays, it’s unlikely he’ll be at 100 percent, making him more of a target for the Celtics’ defense than he was in Game 2. If he doesn’t play, the Celtics also know what to do.

2. Do the Pacers have any more midrange magic?

Midrange shots (those that come between the paint and the 3-point line) accounted for just 11% of total field goal attempts this season. That’s half the midrange rate from just seven years ago (22% in 2016-17) and one-third the rate from 16 years ago (33% in 2007-08).

But the midrange shot is not dead. It’s a key reason why the Pacers are still playing, and why two of the three games in this series have been close.

Over their 16 playoff games, the Pacers have taken 15% of their shots from midrange, the highest rate (by a healthy margin) among the four teams still playing and up from 10% (21st) in the regular season.

While the Pacers didn’t shoot much from midrange in the regular season, they were the first team in the last 27 years to make more than half (50.5%) of their shots from there. And they’ve been even better (52.4%) in the playoffs.

That includes a four-game stretch — Game 6 of the conference semis through Game 2 of this series — in which the Pacers shot an incredible 50-for-81 (61.7%), with those 81 attempts accounting for 23% of their total shots from the field.

They were still better than average (7-for-15) in Game 3, but that wasn’t enough. One possession before he had the ball stolen by Jrue Holiday, Andrew Nembhard missed a 13-foot pullup that would have given the Pacers back the lead with a little more than 30 seconds left.

If they hope to go to Boston for a Game 5, the Pacers may need a little more midrange magic on Monday.

3. Celtics’ small ball hasn’t worked

Game 4 will be the 10th straight game that Kristaps Porzingis has missed with the calf strain he suffered in Game 4 of the first round. That injury has pushed Al Horford into the starting lineup, and that lineup has been much better in the playoffs (plus 18.1 per 100 possessions in 195 minutes) than it was in the regular season (plus 2.7 in 311 minutes).

With Horford in the starting lineup, Luke Kornet was the backup center until he sprained his wrist in the first half of Game 2.

With Kornet out, the Celtics initially went to small lineups — with Tatum or Oshae Brissett at center — when Horford sat down. But those lineups haven’t been good:

Celtics in conference finals

Bigs on floor MIN OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg +/-
Two 6 133.3 108.3 +25.0 +3
One 121 122.1 112.2 +9.9 +28
Zero 21 129.7 147.4 -17.6 -8

OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions
Doesn’t include a couple of minutes of Game 2 garbage time

So Xavier Tillman has been getting some minutes as the backup center, including more than six minutes alongside Horford in Game 3 (all of the two big minutes in the table above).

In the second half on Saturday, the only time there were zero bigs on the floor was the last seven seconds of the third quarter). The bigs were missed in those seven seconds because the quarter ended with McDermott getting a tip-in over Payton Pritchard to put the Pacers up nine.

Horford and Porzingis (when he returns) allow the Celtics to play big without sacrificing spacing on offense. Kornet (who’s listed as questionable for Game 4) and Tillman, not so much. However, the latter’s minutes were critical in Game 3, and we may not see much more small ball going forward.

4. More numbers to know

Some other notes regarding the Celtics and Pacers:

  • This series is a huge contrast in ball movement, with the Pacers averaging 400 passes per 24 minutes of possession and the Celtics averaging just 276 per 24.
  • Celtics opponents have made just 19 corner 3-pointers over their 13 playoff games. That’s as many as the Wolves made in their four-game sweep of the Suns in the first round.
  • Though Boston is a plus-51 from 3-point range in this series, the Pacers have outscored them by three points from the field. But Boston is a plus-27 at the free-throw line.
  • After committing just 11.6 turnovers per 100 possessions through the first two rounds (lowest among teams that won a series), the Pacers have committed 16.4 per 100 in this series. Boston has won the possession battle, committing 14 fewer turnovers over the three games.
  • The Celtics’ Sam Hauser and the Pacers’ Ben Sheppard were a combined 33-for-72 (45.8%) from 3-point range through the first two rounds of the playoffs. They’re a combined 0-for-18 in the conference finals.

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on X. 

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