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Always be closing: young Celtics find way to come up clutch in Indiana

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Jayson Tatum and Payton Pritchard come up big in win over Pacers.

Boston Celtics v Indiana Pacers Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

With the score tied at 100 midway through the fourth quarter, Brad Stevens called timeout after the Celtics had erased a 17-point deficit. After losing leads in two of their first three games and fielding some criticism over end-of-game play calling, Boston convincingly closed the door on a Pacers comeback for their first road win.

The Celtics closed with a familiar foursome: Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Tristan Thompson. Daniel Theis saw some minutes with the starters in the closing minutes, but it was Payton Pritchard who saw considerable playing time after two consecutive strong games against the Pacers. In twelve half court sets in the final six minutes, Pritchard was the ball handler on three pick-and-rolls. He missed both of his shots and only registered an assist on a Smart transition 3 in those final minutes but his impact in the clutch was significant.

“We had him running all kinds of pick and rolls in the second quarter and the start of the fourth. He’s poised off that stuff. He makes the right play,” Stevens said of the rookie’s play. “He’s deceptive, so he can get in, use his body, and finish as we saw on a couple of occasions. He’s a guy that knows how to play. We’re awfully small at times when he’s in there late with that group, but he did a good job on both ends tonight.”

Throughout the game, Pritchard was effective keeping his dribble alive, often driving into the lane, probing to see if anything developed, and then taking the ball back out to the perimeter. Here, he yo-yo’s long enough to draw the attention of his initial defender, Victor Oladipo, the dropping big, Myles Turner, and a third defender, T.J. Warren. As soon as the floor shrinks, he kicks it out to Smart who gets Warren to bite on a close out and draws a foul and free throws. It’s a seemingly simple play, but exhibits poise well beyond Pritchard’s years.

In those final 6:36, Boston only made three of their final ten field goal attempts, but they aggressively attacked Indiana’s defense, particularly Tatum. After finishing the first three games with only four trips to the free throw line, Tatum was 8-of-10 last night including 6-of-7 in the fourth quarter.

Head coach Nate Bjorkgren had been blitzing Tatum on side PnR’s to start the game, resulting in three turnovers. Stevens countered with double picks above the break.

With Tatum attacking middle, it eliminated the sideline as a third defender and gave him space to drive to the rim. “I’m just trying to be more aggressive, make the right play, whatever it was, just make sure that we win,” Tatum said after earning a split in the Celtics first mini-series of the regular season. “Didn’t do that the last game, trying to make up for it.”

As Stevens noted in his post-game presser, “we’re not where we ultimately want to be. We’re just not. We’ve got a long way to go to get as good as we need to be. We’re figuring out some things that might work for our team and we’re going to have to experiment along the way.” Boston might have found something in their 26th pick--Brown referred to him as “the GOAT”--and if Tatum has regained the aggressiveness that has so far alluded him this season, this win could be a building block for the rest of the year.