Pacers Need to Slow Boston's Breaks

Time was tight following the Pacers' practice on Saturday. A 2 p.m. flight that would take them to Boston for Sunday's playoff opener was looming large at the airport, so the players were in a hurry to get through media interviews. Thad Young jogged over to the sideline for conversation, and Darren Collison was sweating, short of breath and speaking rapidly when his turn came.

Now the trick becomes maintaining that same sense of urgency about getting back on defense.

The central theme running through the Pacers' four games with Boston during the regular season, and a primary issue in the upcoming playoff series, was/is fastbreak points. It's not a sexy stat, but the Celtics outscored the Pacers 107-48 in transition points in the regular season. Even in the one game the Pacers won, by one point back in November, they were outscored 22-14 in that category.

No NBA team scored more in transition against the Pacers this season than Boston. The Celtics, meanwhile, scored more transition points against the Pacers than any other team.

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"It's been a thing that's hurt us in every game," coach Nate McMillan says.

McMillan emphasized transition defense heading into last Friday's game against the Celtics at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, only to see his team outscored 26-16 on fastbreak points. It could have been worse, though. The Celtics dominated that stat 26-8 when the teams met the previous Friday in Boston, and 33-10 in January.

Those deficits are likely to be too great for the Pacers to overcome unless they're hitting more 3-pointers or getting to the foul line more often than usual. They ranked 29th in the NBA in 3-pointers during the regular season, and 26th in free throws made. In the one game the Pacers won over Boston during the season, they hit 13 more foul shots.

Doing something about containing the Celtics' transition is a multi-pronged challenge.

The Celtics often switch on defense, so when they rebound a missed shot and run the Pacers have had difficulty matching up on the fly. If, for example, a guard has switched onto Myles Turner and Turner runs back looking for his defensive assignment on the other side of the floor, it creates an opportunity for an easy shot.

"You can't do that," McMillan said. "You have to pick up the ball and defend until you can get to your matchup."

Which requires communication. Telling a teammate you've got his man, and to go get yours.

"We've got to do a better job of communicating," McMillan said. "The best defense is a defense that talks. You match up with a man until you get to the matchup you want. We haven't been communicating; we've been trying to run to our man and leaving guys open. We've got to open our mouth."

Doing it correctly can bring about other problems, but that's to worry about later. If Darren Collison, for example, has to pick up Al Horford in transition, it's an "easy seal," as Thad Young put it, that can lead to a postup basket for Horford.

The Pacers' challenge is further enhanced by variety of capable ballhandlers on the Celtics roster beyond point guard Kyrie Irving. Gordon Hayward, Terry Rozier and others can lead a break.

It's also made more difficult by the Pacers' occasional struggles in the halfcourt. If they aren't taking good shots and hitting most of them, misses are all the more likely - and often followed by a Celtics fastbreak. Missed 3-point attempts, which tend to deflect long off the rim, are particularly worrisome. The best way to prevent a fastbreak is to force the opponent to take the ball out of the net.

One factor in the Pacers' favor is that offenses tend to slow down in the playoffs, as fatigue sets in and teams take fewer risks. When the Celtics played Cleveland in the Eastern Conference finals last season they averaged less than 10 fastbreak points per game, and had just three in their Game 7 homecourt loss.

Irving sat out last season's playoffs with an injury, though, so his presence could keep the Celtics' gears from grinding this time around. But then Boston isn't a fastbreaking team by nature, despite its success against the Pacers. It ranked 18th in pace during the regular season, with 103.2 possessions per game. The Pacers ranked 27th, with 101.3 possessions.

McMillan wants to continue his regular season approach. Play fast when you can, looking for an early attempt at the rim after you rebound a missed shot. Otherwise, be patient in the halfcourt and get a good one.

The Pacers will need to get plenty of those in this series.

TJ Leaf

Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images

Going 10 deep

McMillan said he'll continue with a 10-man playing rotation to start the playoffs. He has normally preferred a nine-man group, especially in the playoffs, and then went to what he called a nine-and-a-half-man rotation to give TJ Leaf some first-half minutes.

Leaf's recent play, however, has convinced McMillan to expand his boundaries.

"I like him being out on the floor," McMillan said.

Leaf scored a career-high 28 points on 12-of-19 shooting while playing 34+ minutes in Wednesday's season-ending victory in Atlanta. He averaged just 3.9 points for the season, but hit 56 percent of his shot attempts and was the Pacers' second-best offensive rebounder behind Domantas Sabonis on a per-minute basis.

Where's Wesley?

Wesley Matthews has gone missing from the Pacers' offense the past couple of weeks, but likely will be needed if the Pacers are to contend with the Celtics.

Matthews, acquired as a free agent in February, scored in double figures in eight consecutive games and in 12 of 14 after becoming acclimated to the Pacers' system and players. He's done so in just three of the previous seven games in which he's played, averaging 7.3 points on 33 percent shooting. He scored just three points and took three shots in his most recent appearance against Brooklyn on Sunday.

He's also sat out three of the previous four with a sore right toe.

McMillan hasn't written him out of the offense, though.

"We're trying to take advantage of matchups," McMillan said. "There are some situations when you're out there and the ball doesn't find you. It depends on the matchups. We try to take advantage of those guys who are in position to make something happen."

Baking a cake

Asked about Boston coach Brad Stevens' renowned ability to made adjustments on the fly, McMillan hesitated to give too much credit to the opposing coach. The coaches compete against one another as well, obviously.

"I think he takes advantage of his personnel," McMillan said. "If you have the ingredients to bake the cake, you can make some different cakes. If you don't, you can't.

"He has a lot of ingredients over there. He has a lot to work with. He can mix and match and do some things. He does what all coaches do, try to take advantage of the personnel you have."

Which raises the question: does McMillan believe he has all the necessary ingredients?

"Of course we're missing some ingredients," he said, no doubt thinking of Victor Oladipo. "But you have to work with what you've got. That's not knocking what we have, but of course you're missing some things."

No better time than Game 1

Game 1 usually presents the best opportunity for the road team in a playoff series to get a win. The visitors are often hungrier than the favored home team and can play with less pressure.

The Pacers have shown a knack for winning Game 1 on the road in recent years. They won in Cleveland last year, in Toronto three years ago and in New York in 2013. They've also done it in New Jersey in 2006 and 2002, in Philadelphia in 2001, in New York in 1995, and in Orlando and Atlanta in 1994.

Although doing so at least temporarily steals homecourt advantage, it doesn't guarantee a series victory, however. The Pacers have won just one of the previous six series in which they won Game 1 on the road.

Still, it injects life into a series and hope for the underdog.

"It's a great opportunity," McMillan said. "You get Game 1 and then the homecourt switches. Very important game. You get confidence in that situation."

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Mark Montieth's book on the formation and groundbreaking seasons of the Pacers, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," is available in bookstores throughout Indiana and on Amazon.com.

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