It's the underachievers vs. the overachievers in the No. 4-5 matchup in the Eastern Conference.
The Boston Celtics were the preseason favorites to win the East and have been relatively healthy this season. They did have a better point differential than they did last year, but a fourth-place finish is a disappointment for a team with such talent, depth and versatility. The Celtics can obviously make up for it with a run to The Finals, but to get there, they'd likely have to win multiple games on the road, where they were 1-7 in last year's postseason.
They'd first have to get through the Indiana Pacers, who have proven themselves to be a tough out. All-Star Victor Oladipo played just 36 games this season (suffering a season-ending knee injury in January) and the Pacers are in the same spot they were a year ago, thanks to a top-three defense and a balanced offense.
Last year, as the No. 5 seed, the Pacers came close to ending LeBron James' reign atop the Eastern Conference. In losing a seven-game series, the Pacers outscored the Cleveland Cavaliers by 40 points. The Celtics came pretty close to knocking off the Cavs two rounds later.
Now, Boston and Indiana meet in the first round. The Pacers are without Oladipo and the Celtics are suddenly without Marcus Smart, who is expected to be out through the first two rounds of the playoffs with a torn oblique muscle. The Celtics have the talent to advance far enough to get Smart back, but success in this league is about more than talent, and the Pacers are the team in this series that has done more with what it has.
Three things to watch
1. Have the Celtics figured things out over the last few weeks? A starting lineup change – Aron Baynes in, Marcus Morris out – seemed to spark a 5-1 stretch that included two wins over the Pacers. And in 163 total minutes with Baynes and Al Horford on the floor together, the Celtics outscored their opponents by 18.5 points per 100 possessions. But the more important development for the Celtics may have been Hayward averaging 16.9 points on 62 percent shooting over his last seven games. It's not clear that every Celtics rotation player is comfortable in his role, but a confident and explosive Hayward can make a big difference.
2. How have the Pacers survived without Victor Oladipo? By continuing to defend and by taking care of business against bad teams. The Pacers ranked eighth defensively (108.0 points allowed per 100 possessions) after Oladipo was lost for the season. And after Feb. 1, they were 11-1 against non-playoff teams. But Indiana was just 5-14 against playoff teams over the last nine weeks, scoring just 106.7 points per 100 possessions in those 19 games. Nine of those 14 losses were within five points in the last five minutes, but that's an area where their All-Star was missed. With Oladipo (who shot 63 percent in the clutch), the Pacers were 11-4 in games that were within five in the last five. Without him, they were 12-14.
3. How do the Celtics replace Smart? They don't. There's nobody that can match Smart's combination of energy and physicality on the perimeter. It was in late November when Smart's move into the starting lineup, where he provided some balance, sparked an eight-game winning streak. Jaylen Brown will likely start in Smart's place and provide a little more offense, though Smart was actually the better 3-point shooter of the two this season. Without Smart, the Celtics still have a solid, eight-man rotation. But they'll probably need to depend on Semi Ojeleye or Brad Wanamaker for a few minutes per game as a ninth man.
The number to know
117.6 -- The Celtics scored 117.6 points per 100 possessions in their four games against the Pacers this season. That was the most efficiently Boston scored against any of the other 15 teams that made the playoffs and the most efficiently that any Eastern Conference opponent scored against Indiana's third-ranked defense. Seven different Celtics averaged double-figures against the Pacers, and all of them shot better than 50 percent in doing it. The Pacers' issues started in transition, with the Celtics registering 26.8 fast break points per game (with at least 22 in all four meetings), the most they averaged against any opponent and the most the Pacers allowed to any opponent. Overall, the Celtics had the league's fifth most improved offense, scoring 4.5 more points per 100 possessions than they did last season.
The Pacers have been remarkably resilient in the wake of losing their best player, and their starting lineup doesn't have any obvious liabilities on defense for the Celtics to attack. But they've struggled to beat good teams, win on the road, and close out games without Oladipo. The Celtics have had issues with chemistry and consistency, and Smart will be missed. But the regular season is a lot different from the playoffs, when a team can focus on one opponent on both ends of the floor. Talent and depth should be enough to get through to the conference semifinals. Celtics in 5.
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