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Stevens on the Pacers: “they play as hard and physical as anybody”

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NBA: Indiana Pacers at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

At one point during NBC Boston’s broadcast of the Celtics-Pacers game, Tommy Heinsohn said something to the effect of “do you know who this Indiana Pacers team reminds me of? Last year’s Boston Celtics.”

Tommy’s truth bomb was a compliment to a gritty Pacers team without their best player (Victor Oladipo), a sly indictment of what’s been missing with this year’s team, and a wake up call. Indiana is for real.

When asked about their toughness and grittiness, Brad Stevens didn’t mince words. “I think they’re the litmus test for that. I think they play as hard and physical as anybody,” Stevens said. “Right when we were small, they went right to the post. They didn’t waste time. They didn’t waste possessions. We tried to buy a few minutes there without double bigs and it was hard. At the end of the day, they put us in a lot of tough spots. Give them a lot of credit.”

In a game that featured hot shooting from both teams, there were times when it looked like a wrestling match. The Celtics and Pacers combined for 26 total turnovers and hard fought 96 points in the paint. Whenever Boston would pull away with a double-digit lead, Indiana answered with a run of their own. Knock out punch after knock out punch, both potential playoff opponents treated this like a Game 1 and thankfully for the Celtics who for now are the #4 seed in the East, they did just enough to win 114-112 Friday night.

“I thought we played harder with more purpose than we have. A lot of the carry over from the small group workouts with the techniques were good on the defensive end of the floor, but at the end of the day, if we’re going to beat these guys any more than just a regular season game at home, you better get them off the glass and you better get those loose balls that we didn’t get late. That’s why they are who they are. I think they’re really good,” Stevens said.

As good as the Pacers have been all year, particularly after losing Oladipo for the year, the Celtics have found some resiliency over their last two games and much of that can be attributed to the insertion of Aron Baynes into the starting lineup. For Baynes, gearing up for a seven-game series is what playing basketball is all about. “It’s fun. We’re going to learn them. They’re going to learn us. Both teams are going to make adjustments. There are definitely things we can do better. They’re going to change things up as well. It’s playoff basketball. It’s fun,” Baynes said after finishing with a double-double on Friday night.

“There’s a good environment out there and there’s going to be a good environment at their place. Then, we’ll probably meet for a few more games. It’s a whole lot of fun out there right now and that’s what we play for, getting ready for this time of year.”

Kyrie Irving was fairly ho hum after hitting the game winner with half a second left on the clock. He knows that this is still the regular season and the playoffs are a different animal, but he recognized just how tough you have to be to beat Indiana four times in April and how important Baynes will be to do that.

“We just had to be resilient. They do a good job mucking up the game, being in the paint. Myles (Turner) does a great job coming over and contesting a lot of shots, but Baynes was in the middle tonight, so it was hard for him to commit to some of our layups which enabled me to get a few easy ones where he sealed Myles,” Irving said. “He did a great job tonight, just playing with that place and playing to that physicality to match theirs.”

The top of the Eastern Conference is riddled with teams loaded with talent. Giannis Antetokounmpo is arguably the front runner for MVP. Toronto quietly added Marc Gasol at the trade deadline. The 76ers’ starting lineup has been called the most talented five in the East. They could all be worthy opponents on Boston’s playoff run, but a Round One bar fight with the Pacers could be exactly what the Celtics need to regain their edge.