It was a strange night in Indianapolis as the Celtics fell to the Pacers 122-117. Kemba Walker had 44 points, Jaylen Brown and Daniel Theis both fouled out, and Gordon Hayward left yet another game and didn’t return. The biggest takeaway from this game was the defensive lapses from the Celtics that cost them over and over in some huge spots. Even through all that, they still had a good chance to win but just could not get it done.
One concern coming into this game was how the Celtics’ front court was going to face up against Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis. These two have historically caused the Celtics trouble in the past, and the big man rotations for the Celtics have been continuously changing all season. Given this, the two Pacers big men were relatively held in check for most of this game. Myles Turner ended the game with only 11 points and 4 rebounds and actually became a liability on defense as Kemba Walker took advantage of him on the high screen switch, roasting him over and over again. Domantas Sabonis had a much better game with 15 points and 14 rebounds. He stayed in the game most of crunch time with his ability to face up against smaller lineups.
From the start of the game, Brad Stevens was throwing all sorts of rotations at these two for Indiana. “Stretch-6” Marcus Smart and Robert Williams were out for this one, so it was slim pickings of who was going to defend down low. To start the game, Stevens actually had Daniel Theis on Sabonis and Jaylen Brown on Turner. This seemed to work for the most part as Brown held his ground with Turner in what would seem like a major mismatch. Turner only ended up with one basket all second half and, strangely enough, with only one basket in the paint all game long.
Even as Turner was held quiet all night, it was still necessary to have a big body on him which gave Sabonis his chance to have a solid night. This is the Pacers’ MO: have one of these two control the game in the paint and then have other guards take over on the scoring end making shots with inside-out basketball. Last night, Sabonis was the presence down low who made an impact.
Contrasting with Turner, Sabonis took all of his shots in the paint. He was able to get in deep of the Celtics’ defense most of the night. It was surprising he did not have a better night scoring only finishing the night shooting 5-for-11 from the field.
Theis correctly switched over to deny the ball, but he was just a little late getting back after the pass to Sabonis which led him to get a step and body his way for two. As mentioned, luckily these close range shot attempts only led to a few baskets against the Celtics. Down the stretch of the game, Theis did much better contesting the shot leading Sabonis to go on a cold streak before he made the most important one to put the Pacers up by three with 32.4 seconds left in the game.
Even as Theis was the go-to defender on Sabonis down the stretch, it was Grant Williams who probably played the best defense on him during the game. He had a great stretch in the first half of the second quarter boding him up multiple times stopping his progression into the paint. From there, Sabonis was required to take an uncomfortable attempt that he missed.
Unfortunately, the defensive stretch became too much for Williams. He wore down a bit and became a step slower. Sabonis cashed in on this fatigue a few times during their second quarter run to take the lead at halftime. Regardless, Williams made Sabonis the most uncomfortable of all the different defenders that matched up against him. This resilient defense is just another reason why Stevens trusts the rookie in big situations. Overall, the Celtics had an impressive night defending against one of the better front courts in the NBA.
Looking forward, the Celtics are going to quickly have another front court test Thursday night against the 76ers and old friend, Joel Embiid. He dominated in their season opener, and it will be another huge test after last night. Even though neither Turner or Sabonis were able to dominate in the box score, it was slightly concerning the shots Sabonis was able to create in the paint. His furthest shot from the basket was six feet. Similar to the first clip, Theis allows Sabonis to get in deep and gives up an easy two.
If this looks easy for Sabonis, just think about how Embiid will look barreling into the paint against Theis. Everyone knows he is a force, but, as the Celtics have showed before, the key is to make him uncomfortable and getting him to play outside of the paint.
When preparing for this game against the 76ers, it will be all hands on deck to stop Embiid and Horford. It is going to be another tall task for Theis, Williams, and Enes Kanter as well. Kanter has been struggling lately, but he needs to put something together defensively for this huge game. The Pacers game was a disappointing team loss, but it may have shown a scheme and system that can work against prominent front courts in the league.