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

Celtics-Pacers: 5 takeaways as Jrue Holiday steals the show in Game 3

Boston passes its toughest test yet, Jrue Holiday snatches victory from Indiana and the East Finals appear all but over.

Jayson Tatum matches his playoff career high with 36 points, while Jrue Holiday provides the late-game heroics in Game 3.

INDIANAPOLIS — The Boston Celtics had played 12 playoff games prior to Saturday. And in those 12 games, teams with double-digit leads (Boston 10 times, its opponent twice) were 12-0.

Midway through the third quarter of Game 3 of Eastern Conference Finals, the Indiana Pacers, playing without Tyrese Haliburton, were up 18. The Celtics, up 2-0 in the series, didn’t need this game and certainly weren’t the desperate team.

But this time, they came back. They shut down the high-powered Pacers’ offense (27 points on 35 possessions) over the last 18 minutes, and Jrue Holiday made big plays on both ends of the floor down the stretch to secure a 114-11 victory that put them one win from the NBA Finals.

Here are some notes, quotes, numbers and film as the Celtics won their sixth straight game and put the Pacers on the brink of elimination:

1. Celtics’ All-Defense combo makes big defensive plays

Both Holiday and Derrick White were named to the All-Defensive Second Team earlier this week, and their prowess was on display throughout Game 3.

While they’re both 6-foot-4 guards, both can defend inside. The Pacers often had size advantages in the post on Saturday night, but they weren’t often able to score with those advantages.

Early on, it was 6-foot-11 Myles Turner vs. White, who swatted Turner’s turnaround jumper …

Derrick White block vs. Myles Turner

A few possessions later, White got a post stop against Isaiah Jackson. Late in the first quarter, Holiday forced Turner into a double-dribble.

The Pacers still scored efficiently through the first 30 minutes, but the Celtics guards made more big plays late. On Indiana’s first possession of the fourth quarter, Turner rolled to the rim and seemingly had a layup, only for White to veer off his man and pick up his fourth block of the night.

Holiday had just one block, but three steals, with the last being the biggest defensive play of Game 3. With the Celtics up one, Pacers guard Andrew Nembhard had the ball in transition, tearing up the left side of the floor.

Holiday cut him off, but lost his balance. Nembhard dribbled behind his back, but took an extra beat to get his dribble going forward again, allowing Holiday to recover and cut him off again, this time going right toward the middle of the paint. As he stopped Nembhard’s forward momentum, Holiday reached and took the ball away.

Jrue Holiday steal from Andrew Nembhard

“I feel like he’s a right-hand driver,” Holiday said of Nembhard afterward. “He’s been very, very aggressive all night. Great player, had a great game. But I just made a play. I kind of jumped his right hand and got the steal.”

The Celtics have managed to outscore the Pacers in transition in each of the last two games. And the difference in Game 3 was one of the best examples of individual transition defense you’ll ever see.

2. Celtics embrace the deficit

Prior to Game 6 of the conference semifinals series between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Dallas Mavericks (May 18), teams were 2-44 in these playoffs when they trailed by at least 15 points. Since then, they’re 4-2, including road comebacks from 18 points down on each of the last two nights.

For the Celtics, maybe an 18-point deficit on Saturday was a good thing. They haven’t been tested much in the postseason, and the two previous times they had been down (Game 2 vs. Miami and Game 2 vs. Cleveland), they hadn’t been able to respond.

Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla had seen other teams come back from double-digit deficits in the last week. Why not his own?

“Being down 10 on the road in a playoff game,” he said afterward, “should not be anything other than normalcy.”

And maybe he enjoyed this kind of victory more than the dominant, 16-point win of two nights earlier.

“Once we embraced the fact that we were down double-digits on the road in Game 3 against Indiana,” he said, “I thought it was pretty fun.

“I love the approach that we took. I loved the mindset that we had. I thought we executed well on both ends of the floor and we made the plays that were necessary to win. That’s how games are gonna go. You have to be able to win in different ways. You have to be able to get through certain stuff. And I thought our guys did a great job getting through it.”

Through the first two rounds, the Celtics had played just 79 total seconds of “clutch time,” where the score was within five points in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter. In this series, they’ve played more than 12 minutes of clutch time, needing to come back from eight points down with less than two and a half minutes to go in Game 3.

3. Pacers switch, Celtics get moving late

Mazzulla said that he liked his team’s offensive process throughout the game and that it was on defense where they showed dramatic improvement over the last 18 minutes.

Statistically, he’s right. But down the stretch, the Celtics also played with better intent offensively.

With Haliburton out, the Pacers were switching more screens than they did in Games 1 and 2. That flattened the Celtics’ offense out a bit, forcing them to be a little more stagnant, play later in the shot clock and take some tougher shots.

Indiana wasn’t afraid to have T.J. McConnell or Turner switch onto Boston’s stars …

Pacers switching

Other defenders would shade toward the resulting isolations, but that sometimes resulted in tough shots with little time remaining on the clock …

Jaylen Brown miss long 3-pointer

The Celtics didn’t keep settling, though, and they had some great intent as they scored on seven straight possessions down the stretch.

Al Horford took advantage of a post-switch mismatch against McConnell. Then Holiday really sparked some great possessions.

After handing the ball off to White, he quickly rolled to an open layup. He then attacked a seam in transition, creating an open 3 for Jayson Tatum.

The Celtics were still down two with less than a minute to go, and the Pacers seemingly did a good job of getting back in transition after Pascal Siakam missed on a drive. But Holiday took Tatum’s pass on the right wing and didn’t hesitate, attacking Siakam in the restricted area, drawing a foul, and finishing with his left hand …

Jrue Holiday go-ahead basket

He made the free throw to give the Celtics their first lead since the first 10 seconds of the second quarter.

4. A major difference from beyond the arc

Another big play in that stretch was a wide-open corner 3 from Horford off an incredible, behind-the-back pass from Tatum.

While the Pacers were switching and flattening the Celtics out, Tatum (36 points, eight assists, zero turnovers) was the one guy that could bend the defense. And Horford was often the beneficiary, setting screens and popping into open space. The 37 year old, still seeking his first championship in his 17th season, scored 23 points, shooting 7-for-12 from beyond the arc.

His seven 3s were a career high (1,258 total games, regular season and playoffs combined) and two more than the Pacers made as a team in Game 3.

The Celtics’ 16-for-46 (35%) mark from 3-point range was worse than the league average, but those 46 3-point attempts accounted for 55% of their total shots and were more than twice as many as the Pacers (5-for-22) attempted.

The Pacers were a plus-28 in the paint in this game, but the Celtics were a plus-33 from beyond the arc. There have now been six games in these playoffs where one team has made at least 10 more 3-pointers than its opponent. The Celtics have been involved in four of those six games (the first three were in the first round vs. Miami), winning three of the four.

The Pacers had some good looks. Rookie Ben Sheppard, who got the start in Haliburton’s place, got some great ones. But after shooting 18-for-38 (47%) from 3-point range through the first two rounds of the playoffs, he’s 0-for-9 in this series.

5. Pacers get funky with final play, but can’t connect

The Pacers didn’t need to match the Celtics from beyond the arc. They just needed three more points after the Celtics went up three after Holiday’s steal and ensuing free throws.

And Pacers coach Rick Carlisle got creative in his timeout with 1.7 seconds left. He had four guys line up in the backcourt, almost like they were football receivers in a fourth-and-long situation.

Doug McDermott screened Aaron Nesmith’s defender, allowing Nesmith to run open to the near corner, but his fadeaway 3-pointer fell short at the buzzer.

Aaron Nesmith 3-point attempt for tie

Mazzulla had seen the formation before, but the offensive team can run different patterns out of it every time.

“It’s a really good play,” he said. “It’s unpredictable.

“That was definitely hard to guard. They got a good shot off. Some of it’s luck, too. If that shot goes in, we’re having a completely different conversation.”

As it is, the Celtics can finish this series in Game 4 on Monday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).