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Playoff Preview: Boston Celtics vs Indiana Pacers

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Celtics have homecourt advantage over the upstart Pacers

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

The Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers will meet in the first round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs in an Eastern Conference series. The Celtics have home court advantage and will open the series in Boston. The series schedule is as follows:

· Game 1 – at Boston – Sunday 4/14 – 1:00 PM EST - TNT

· Game 2 – at Boston – Wednesday 4/17 – 7:00 PM EST – TNT

· Game 3 – at Indiana – Friday 4/19 – 8:30 PM EST – ABC

· Game 4 – at Indiana – Sunday 4/21 – 1:00 PM EST – ABC

· Game 5* – at Boston – Wednesday 4/24 – TBD *if necessary

· Game 6* – at Indiana – Friday 4/26 – TBD *if necessary

· Game 7* – at Boston – Sunday 4/28 – TBD *if necessary

During the regular season the teams met four times, with Boston winning three of the four matchups:

· Boston – 101 at Indiana – 102

· Indiana – 108 at Boston – 135

· Indiana – 112 at Boston – 114

· Boston – 117 at Indiana – 97

For the first of those two contests, the Pacers had Victor Oladipo available. Oladipo is out for the year, after suffering a knee injury mid-season. The Celtics will be without Marcus Smart, as he suffered an oblique injury late in the season and will miss at least the first round of the playoffs. Boston should feel confident, given the regular season results, as well as having the advantage in several match ups. We’ll break it down Brad Stevens-style.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Indiana Pacers Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Starting Ballhandlers

Kyrie Irving vs Darren Collison

This one seems to tilt pretty drastically towards Boston. Irving is an All-NBA level of player, who is coming off a terrific regular season. Irving averaged 23.9 points per game on 48.7/40.1/87.3 shooting splits. He also tallied 6.9 assists and grabbed five rebounds per game. Against the Pacers, Irving’s numbers were down a bit. That seemed to be a matter of the blowout nature of two of the games, as Irving averaged nearly five minutes less per contest against Indiana than over the course of the regular season.

Collison turned in one of his typical solid, if unspectacular, seasons. His shooting was down a bit, as he dropped 6.1 percentage points as a three-point shooter from his league-leading 46.8% mark in 2017-18 to 40.7% in 2018-19. Against Boston, Collison’s impact was fairly limited, as he scored just 9.3 points, to go along with only 4.3 assists per game.

Irving is the far more talented player and plays a far bigger role for Boston than Collison does for Indiana. Irving will be the key to how the Celtics attack the Pacers’ defense. He’ll work in both pick and roll actions, as well as straight isolations. If Collison can’t hold him in check, Indiana’s only other real options are backup Cory Joseph or little-used rookie Aaron Holiday

Look for the Pacers to attack Irving by trying to force mismatches against the Celtics switching defense. They’ll try to get Irving isolated against a big, or Bojan Bogdanovic as much as possible. If it gets out of control, Boston will likely move Irving onto Wesley Matthews, who is much more of a standstill player. If Indiana wants to try to post Matthews on Irving, the Celtics will live with it. Think of this as akin to when teams tried to post Isaiah Thomas with inexperienced post-up players. That’s a gamble that rarely works out the way the opponent hopes for.

Advantage: Boston. This is Boston’s biggest advantage in the entire series. Irving has to win this matchup decidedly. And he should. If Indiana can play it anywhere close to even, that probably doesn’t bode well for the Celtics chances in the series.

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

Starting Wings

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown vs Bojan Bogdanovic and Wesley Matthews

This is a spot where Boston is in some flux with Smart out for the series. Smart was the Celtics primary defender on Bogdanovic. Last time the teams met, Smart held Bogdanovic to just four points on 1-of-8 shooting. Defending Bogdanovic probably falls to Brown now. Stevens could pull a fast one and start Gordon Hayward or Marcus Morris, or come really out of left field with someone like Semi Ojeleye, but the expected play is Brown.

Bogdanovic struggles with athletic defenders who get up into his body. Bogdanovic isn’t a great ballhandler, so Smart would press up on him and make his life difficult with the ball. Brown can do the same thing, but he has to avoid foul trouble. Smart is very good at playing aggressive defense without fouling, while Brown tends to get caught with his hand in the cookie jar on occasion.

Why is defending Bogdanovic so important? Since Oladipo went down, he’s been the Pacers best offensive player. He scored 18 points per game on nearly 50% shooting from the floor. He’s one of the only creators Indiana has in the half court. If Boston can slow him down, it will go a long way towards a series win.

Matthews, on the other hand, has been the same guy he’s been for years: a rugged defender who is best on offense as a standstill shooter. He scored 10.9 points per game with Indiana after joining the team following a buyout from New York, but he shot under 39%. He’s someone the Celtics will likely take turns hiding defenders on, be it for match up reasons, foul trouble or just to get someone some rest.

On the other end of the floor, the Celtics should have no issues attacking Indiana’s defense. Tatum scored 16.8 points per game on 51% shooting in the four games vs the Pacers. This is because his primary defender is Bogdanovic, whose best defense is his offense.

Brown was also successful with 16.7 points per game on 52.8% shooting over three games against Indiana (Brown missed one due to injury). Unlike Tatum, who did most of his damage in the half court game, Brown got a lot of his points in transition. The Pacers don’t have any athletes who can match Brown in the open floor, and Boston made a concerted effort to get him the ball on the run.

Advantage: Boston. The Celtics starting wings are relative babies compared to the Pacers, but that’s an advantage. If Tatum and Brown play with the confidence and focus they showed in last year’s postseason, Boston should win this match up.

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

Starting Bigs

Al Horford and Aron Baynes vs Myles Turner and Thaddeus Young

Stevens went back to Baynes and Horford starting together about three weeks ago. The two big men together have seemed to settle everyone else into the roles they are most comfortable in. The pair also lift Boston’s defense considerably, as the Celtics numbers when the two start are right at the top of the NBA.

Offensively, it frees Horford up to attack in different ways. He can either pull opposing centers out to the arc, or he can go down inside and beat up on smaller power forwards. Either way, it’s an advantage for Boston. Being able to pull Turner, one of the league’s better shot-blockers away from the paint is huge to open things up inside for the Celtics. If they switch Young onto Horford, that’s a win because Horford will either score on the block himself, or he’ll find shooters and cutters.

As for Baynes, he’s in the lineup mostly for his defense. He’ll do the dirty work as far as banging bodies inside, rebounding, and taking charges. On offense, Baynes doesn’t do anything he’s not capable of. He sets solid screens, he scores inside on easy ones and when he’s left open at the arc, he’s proven adept at knocking down three-pointers.

Baynes will likely defend Young, who likes to hang around the paint, while Horford will defend the more perimeter-based Turner. This has the added benefit of creating a cross-match, because the Pacers flip-flop this when they are on defense. Indiana likes to get their defense set to be at their best. It benefits Boston to push the ball and attack before the Pacers can get Turner in position to protect the rim. The cross-matches help with attacking before the defense is matched up.

One thing to watch: The Pacers averaged 11 offensive rebounds per game against the Celtics. In the playoffs, where the game slows down and each possession matters more, you can’t afford to gift the opponent extra chances. Boston has to focus on blocking out and not allowing Indiana to get cheap second-chance points.

Advantage: Boston. This one is closer, mostly because Turner has been really good this season. He only got nine shots per game against the Celtics in the regular season. Expect that number to climb quite a bit. Young, on the other hand, was a disaster against Boston. He shot just 41.3% and was a -47 in 113 minutes over the four-game set. Horford just needs to do what he does, and the same for Baynes. Just by being consistent, that’s another win for the Celtics.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Indiana Pacers Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Reserves

Gordon Hayward, Marcus Morris, Terry Rozier and Daniel Theis vs. Domantas Sabonis, Cory Joseph, Tyreke Evans, Doug McDermott and T.J. Leaf

Stevens had cut the Boston rotation down to just nine-men over the last month or so. With Smart out, it’s unclear if he’ll go with just eight, or if someone else will emerge. Stevens isn’t afraid to adjust from game to game, depending on that night’s needs. It is likely Daniel Theis, who was hit or miss in the rotation after the cut-down, will get back in there. The Pacers tend to be traditional with two bigs always on the floor, which makes it likely Theis plays. If Stevens goes off the board, he could turn to Brad Wanamaker to replace Smart’s minutes in the back court or Ojeleye on the wing.

No matter who plays, the key guys on each side are Hayward and Sabonis. Hayward has been playing excellent basketball for the last month and a half. He’s giving the Celtics consistent scoring, and the Pacers are ill-equipped to stop him. Hayward gave Indiana fits, most recently going 9-for-9 in a blowout victory for Boston. The Pacers simply don’t have defenders to match up when Hayward is aggressive, especially off the dribble.

On the other side, Sabonis gives Boston some troubles. He scored 13.8 points per game on 60% shooting. The Celtics just don’t have a great match up for him. Don’t be surprised if Baynes gets a quick hook and then is brought back ito match up when Sabonis checks in. Stevens likes to use Baynes against the stronger, bangers inside. That’s Sabonis for Indiana.

Elsewhere, Morris and Rozier can shoot Boston in or out of games very quickly. If they are on their games, the Pacers don’t have a chance to stopping them. If either, or both, is off, they could swing a game Indiana’s way. It’s up to Stevens to recognize the type of night they are having and ask more of the others if necessary.

Beyond Sabonis, the rest of Indiana’s bench is pretty bland. Evans didn’t really work out as hoped for. McDermott has shot it well, but offers little else. Leaf has been a nice surprise, but he’s fairly limited. And Joseph is like Collison-lite. He’s solid, but nothing special.

Advantage: Boston. This is another area where the Celtics can have a massive advantage. A lot depends on Morris and Rozier. If they are on, Indiana has no chance of matching the production of Boston’s bench. All of the Celtics bench players have also started at one point or another, so if the situation calls for a lineup change, Boston is far better equipped to deal with it than Indiana is.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Indiana Pacers Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Coaching

Brad Stevens came into his own throughout the last two playoff runs for Boston. After some early questions about his ability to get the team wins in the postseason, Stevens has led the Celtics to back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals appearances. If it wasn’t for running into LeBron James, it’s likely Boston would have an NBA Finals appearance under Stevens by now too.

Nate McMillan has done a great job leading the Pacers to regular season success. But, like Stevens initially, Indiana has come up short in the playoffs with two straight first round losses. Going back to his Seattle and Portland days, McMillan has only advanced past the first round once in seven chances in the postseason.

McMillan deserves credit for keeping Indiana afloat after losing their best player in Oladipo. Now it’s Stevens’ turn to adjust with his best defender on the shelf on the eve of the playoffs.

Advantage: Boston. Stevens has shown he can get it done the last two postseasons. He’s made the right adjustments time after time. This is another big advantage for the Celtics.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Indiana Pacers Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Prediction: Celtics in five games. Smart is a big loss for Boston, but they’ve got more than enough to get by Indiana. The Pacers held it together fairly well early on without Oladipo, but have really struggled down the stretch. Their limited offensive options are going to make it hard for them to score enough to keep up with the Celtics. If the Celtics aren’t focused, the Pacers will make them pay and extend this series longer than anyone is comfortable with. If Boston remains focused, they can take care of business early and get some valuable rest before the second round. The Celtics talked a lot about just wanting to get to the playoffs, so expect them to be at their best now that we are finally here.