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Defense keys an ugly win: 12 takeaways from Celtics/Pacers Game 1

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Boston’s defense keyed a big second half turnaround

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

1. After watching both the Celtics and Pacers bodies of work from the regular season, it was fair to guess that this series would feature ugly, physical basketball. That’s exactly what we got in Game 1. Both teams went at each other hard right from the tip. In the end, Boston shot slightly better in the second half and eliminated some of their sloppiness. That was enough to make the difference between a win and a loss.

2. You knew Kyrie Irving, after missing the 2018 NBA Playoffs, was going to want to make an impact from the jump in this game. He came out aggressively and scored on Boston’s first possession. In our series’ preview, we mentioned that Irving should win the matchup with Darren Collison fairly decisively. Shots like this go a long way towards that:

3. While Irving is Boston’s best player, Al Horford is Boston’s most important player. He’s got defensive versatility like almost no other big in the NBA. Here, Horford picked up Collison on switch. For most bigs, this is a problem. Horford completely shuts down Collison and stymies any chance of this possession being successful:

4. In addition to being physical and ugly, this game also continued a troubling trend for the Celtics against the Pacers: they turned the ball over early and allowed a bunch of offensive rebounds in the first half. Many of the turnovers were unforced, which seemed to come from the Celtics being way too juiced to start the game. On the plus side, just like in the regular season, Boston cleaned things up significantly in the second half. It’s no coincidence that it went hand-in-hand with the Celtics pulling away and making the game a blowout.

5. Despite the struggles in the first half, a welcomed sight kept Boston in the game: Marcus Morris becoming and offensive machine again. Morris had a wonderful start to the season. He was the Celtics most consistent player pre-Christmas. Somewhere after the holidays, extending through most of the rest of the regular season, Morris fell off. He seemed to get back on track when Brad Stevens moved him back to a bench role late in the year. His production against an over-matched Indiana second unit was huge for Boston.

6. Speaking of Stevens and the rotation, he had to make a lineup change with Marcus Smart out. He went with conventional wisdom and started Jaylen Brown. Brown was a mess offensively, as he seemed way too eager to start the game. He was rushing shots and playing a little out of control. On the other end of the floor, Brown had the desired impact though. He defended Bogdanovic quite well and that helped throw the Pacers off their game. Brown will settle down offensively for Game 2 and should remain the starter.

7. Part of what was cleaned up in the second half were plays like this from the first half. Irving goes on a mini-mental vacation here and loses track of Cory Joseph. This allows Joseph to dribble into a three-pointer with a late contest from Irving. In the second half, Boston didn’t have any plays like this:

8. A big part of the second half turnaround was keyed by Boston amping up their ball pressure on defense. The Pacers ballhandlers rarely had a clean dribbling lane and the Celtics pressured passers very well. This both forced turnovers and caused Indiana to take several rushed shots in late-clock situations.

One other change was how Boston defended Bojan Bogdanovic in pick and roll situations. The second defender started jumping Bogdanovic as soon as he came off the screen. This was usually Horford or Aron Baynes. This tactic threw off Indiana’s offensive timing, which led to those hurried, late-clock shots.

9. Another key to the turnaround was playing through Horford. In so many ways, Horford is the Celtics “grownup in the room”. He’s the one who helps settle everything down for Boston. Throughout the second half, the Celtics used Horford extensively. Thaddeus Young simply isn’t big enough to handle Horford on the block. And when he does try to muscle up, Horford uses his skill like this:

10. As was expected, Stevens planned his rotation to take away Domantas Sabonis as much as possible. Sabonis was the Pacers best player against Boston in the regular season, mostly because the Celtics couldn’t guard him in the paint. Stevens pulled Baynes early in each half, and then went back to Baynes when Sabonis checked in late in the first and third quarters. Baynes is easily Boston’s most physical post defender and he was a big part of Sabonis shooting just 3-of-9 for the game.

11. Back to Horford: How nice is it to have a big who can do this? Horford defends Young at the rim, gets the rebound, pushes the ball and finds Hayward on the run for the layup. There are only a few other bigs that can make this sort of sequence of plays. That Boston has one is a huge advantage to steal easy offense, which is a premium in the postseason.

12. Jayson Tatum was quietly effective for the Celtics throughout the game. He scored 15 points and played solid defense against a number of different Pacers, including Bogdanovic. He drilled two three-pointers in the second half, including this one here. One minor worry: this was the last made shot for Boston. They emptied the bench shortly after this shot, but going scoreless for the final 3:34 of a playoff game still isn’t great. Much ado about nothing most likely, but still something that raised an eyebrow.