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A playoff preview: 10 takeaways from Celtics/Pacers

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Lots of potential playoff implications and glimpses of how a series between these two teams might play out

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

1. In a game that was very likely a playoff preview, the Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers went right down to the wire. Kyrie Irving won the game with a buzzer-beater, and the Celtics temporarily have a leg up on the Pacers in terms of postseason seeding. Given the likelihood these two will meet again in a couple of weeks with a lot more on the line, there were some potential playoff takeaways from this game as well.

The big one is that Boston opened with the two-big lineup featuring both Aron Baynes and Al Horford. Those two started alongside Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart and Jayson Tatum. That lineup made for some interesting defensive matchups. Horford and Baynes flip-flopped, as Horford stayed with the perimeter-based Myles Turner and Baynes guarded Thaddeus Young, who spends more time around the paint. The wing/guard matchups were just as fascinating. Boston opened with Smart guarding lead ballhandler Darren Collison and Tatum on Bojan Bogdanovic. This left Irving to guard generally stationary shooter Wesley Matthews. When Matthews had to leave the game briefly, Irving picked up Collison, Smart took Bogdanovic and Tatum guarded Tyreke Evans.

This was all part of Stevens trying to find the least damaging matchup for Irving. This caused some cross-matches as well, and Boston took advantage of those as well. These are all things that will really matter when the postseason starts.

2. One of the ways the Celtics took advantage of the cross-matches was by pushing the ball before Indiana could set their defense. On this play, Irving gets it to Smart on the wing and he attacks the paint right away before delivering the pretty pass to Horford for the dunk:

3. Jaylen Brown came off the bench once again and he scored 16 points. He started the game like he was shot out of cannon, as he attacked the basket repeatedly. On this play, he goes right at the Pacers before they are even close to matched up:

4. One issue with starting Baynes and Horford together is that it threw the big rotation a little out of whack. Brad Stevens used Marcus Morris off the bench as the third big, while Baynes and Horford played more than usual. Horford went nearly 35 minutes, while Baynes played a season-high 32:47. This could be in part because Horford may sit out Saturday’s back-to-back in Brooklyn, but it was also part of Stevens sticking to his preferred nine-man rotation.

While this tweak was generally fine, it did cost Boston for periods of the game. Baynes had to come back in and guard Turner for stretches and he’s just not comfortable hanging out on the perimeter with a guy like Turner. Baynes’ natural inclination is to drop to protect the rim, and this opened up a lot of open jumpers for Turner. This is a spot that may need some further adjustment from Stevens.

5. Gordon Hayward played an aggressive game, with 11 points on seven field goal attempts. His confidence is back enough that he’s now attacking weaker defenders off the dribble. Here, Hayward is guarded by Doug McDermott, which is a mismatch for Boston when Hayward is feeling good. He puts the ball on the deck and gets right to the rim for the lefty finish:

6. This play was one of the more fun sequences of the game. It starts with Smart picking Bogdanovic’s pocket. Then Smart and Irving get out and run the floor, but the Pacers get back. That doesn’t deter Baynes, who rumbles down the lane before finishing the play with a dunk:

7. In the second half, with both Horford and Baynes looking a little gassed, the Celtics struggled to control the glass. Most of the Pacers bigs prefer to pick and pop, which hurt Boston some, as outlined above. But it also caught the defense in a different way. When the guard would keep the ball and the Boston big helped on the drive, the Celtics second rotation wasn’t good enough. The Indiana bigs slipped in behind the driver for multiple offensive rebounds. On the night, the Pacers had 14 offensive boards. That’s something that Boston needs to clean up.

8. The Celtics had 27 assists on 44 baskets, which is a good number. They were really getting everyone involved, as six players scored in double-figures. Unfortunately, once again, the ball movement went missing in the fourth quarter. In the final frame, Boston had just three assists. The Celtics are going to have the ball in Irving’s hands late, and late-game ball tends to be more isolation-based than the rest of the game. But Boston is best when the ball moves more. This lack of ball movement in the fourth quarter has become troublesome.

9. But you take the good with the bad! Irving stepped up twice in the game’s final moments to lead the Celtics to the win. First, he played some really good defense on Collison. Irving gets through two different screens to stay with and contest Collison’s jumper. This sort of effort is championship-level stuff:

10. Then Irving won the game for Boston with a layup with 0.5 seconds to play. This action is something the Celtics like to use late in games. It starts with a DHO from Horford to Irving. If the Pacers trap, Irving will kick back to Horford, who either takes the jumper or drives the closeout. You can see Horford’s gravity impact the play, as Turner leaves the trap on Irving way too early because he’s worried about getting back to Horford.

Turner leaving early opens up the lane for Irving. Young stunts towards him, but you don’t help off the strongside corner and Irving fakes a pass to Tatum to keep Young home. None of the other Pacers can do anything to impact his shot.

Given these two will see each other one more time in the regular season, and most likely again in the postseason, watch for tweaks to how late-game sets are defended. The playoffs are all about adjustments and then adjustments to those adjustments. We’re already seeing the start of that for the Celtics and Pacers.


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