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Celtics prep for playoffs with eye on Pacers

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There are eight games remaining in the Boston Celtics’ regular season, but with two vital meetings against the Indiana Pacers, the playoffs are already here.

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

For those dreading the death rattle of the 82-game marathon, check your calendars and more importantly, the Eastern Conference standings. Even with eight games left in the regular season, the playoffs are already here for the Boston Celtics.

Tomorrow’s home game against the Pacers isn’t just Game #76. With Indiana’s loss in Oklahoma City last night, the Celtics are now just one game behind for the #4 seed and home court advantage in the first round. They’ll also meet a week from Friday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

The importance of both games isn’t lost on the team. “You gotta take it like the playoffs have started for us. They’re a playoff team and a possible team we might play,” Smart said. “For us to come out and really build some momentum against them before the playoffs start--who knows if we may match up with them--but if we do, we’re ready and we’ve built up that momentum against them.”

Boston has split their first two meetings with Indiana, but that game film might be a little irrelevant. First, there will be the glaring absence of Victor Oladipo. In their first game back in early November, Oladipo and Kyrie Irving dueled in the 4th quarter with Irving missing a layup to extend the Celtics lead to 4 and Oladipo subsequently drilling a three to win the game. That game was before Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris were inserted into the starting lineup, too.

Two months later, the Celtics blew them out in the Garden by 27 in game where they hit 14-of-32 from behind the arc and had 32 assists. Since then, the Pacers have retooled their roster by adding veteran Wesley Matthews and playing bigger through Thaddeus Young, Domantas Sabonis, and Myles Turner. They’ve lost seven of their last ten games, but they’re still one of the best defensive teams in the league.

“They play in the seams. They play through their bigs. They make the right reads, the extra pass. They’re flying off dribble hand offs and coming off pick and rolls and just making reads,” Indiana native Gordon Hayward said. “That part doesn’t change. And also, they’re really physical. They play hard. They really play hard.”

Unlike Indiana, that level of commitment on both ends of the floor has been missing for most of the season for Boston. In a lot of ways, the Pacers are the Celtics of 2018, a scrappy group of role players that have figured out how to put up just enough points to beat teams with their defense. After practice on Wednesday, the players echoed their need to be better on that side of the ball. Al Horford talked about his successes, past and present, playing next to Aron Baynes, particularly on the defensive end. Marcus Smart modestly discussed his improved shooting, but perked up recalling some big defensive plays against the Cavaliers. Stevens noted how Hayward’s improvement from the beginning of the year has really become evident on D.

“I think where you see the greatest signal of growth for him in the past six months has been on the defensive end. He’s way more comfortable moving laterally and guarding. You can put him on a number of different guys. He’s done a good job on that end,” Stevens said.

And in typical Stevens fashion, he downplayed the significance of Friday’s game vs. the Pacers and turned the attention inward as the Celtics ramp up heading into April.

“I’m pretty locked in on us right now. Certainly, we can prepare and we scout, and we’ll be ready for each of those games. We’re very cognizant of the fact of where the standings are and the likelihood of that playing out,” Stevens said. “You’re looking at it with a great amount of interest and maybe even an enhanced level of detail, but ultimately, we can’t miss the boat on focusing on us. We have enough to worry about ourselves.”