Losers of six of their last eight games entering play, the Boston Celtics returned home to the TD Garden looking for a spark. And while it wasn’t always easy, they found one against the Indiana Pacers. The Celtics reversed their recent struggles in crunch time, fended off a late Indiana surge, and scored a desperately needed 118-112 victory.
On a rare quiet evening for both Jayson Tatum (4-of-18 from the field) and Jaylen Brown (5-of-12), it was Kemba Walker (a season-best 32 points) and the Boston bench (39 points combined) who led the way for the Celtics. Newly minted All-Star Domantas Sabonis paced the Pacers with 24 points, while brothers Justin and Aaron Holiday complemented him with 34 points combined, but a strong performance in the closing minutes wasn’t enough for Indiana to extend the Celtics’ losing streak.
It didn’t take long after tip-off for the game to tilt against the Celtics. The Pacers raced out of the gate with red-hot shooting from behind the arc, connecting on their first five attempts from deep and rapidly compiling a double-digit lead, 18-4, as the midway point of the quarter approached.
Rather than collapsing, however, the Celtics found some unction coming out of Brad Stevens’ timeout. They reversed the Indiana run with a 15-2 run of their own to pull back within a point, led by 10 early points from a sprightly Walker. One factor behind the comeback was a rare surge in Celtics’ free throws. They found their way to the line 14 times (compared to the Pacers’ seven) in the first quarter, helping them recapture the lead and enter the second quarter ahead 32-31.
A key to Boston’s improved performance was the play of the bench. Typically anemic on the offensive end, the Celtics’ second unit found their scoring touch for a change in the first half. Jeff Teague, Payton Pritchard and Robert Williams provided tremendous minutes on both ends of the court, combining for 27 points in the first half (a season-high for bench points in a half for Boston). Alongside continued excellence from Walker, who pushed his first half scoring total to 18, the Celtics battled their way into halftime holding a one-point lead, 61-60.
One player who struggled to find a rhythm for much of the night was Tatum. He just seemed sluggish, failing to find the mark on the offensive end with any kind of regularity. On the evening, he shot just 4-of-18 from the field, and apart from a late-third-quarter stretch where he connected on a pair of three-pointers, struggled to affect the game at all as a scorer.
The third quarter progressed at a similar pace to much of the rest of the evening. The Celtics maintained a narrow-but-steady lead over Indiana, stretching as high as 10 and as thin as two, but never quite putting real distance between their opponents. The two teams counterpunched one another with the pace of a playoff game, and entered the final quarter with the Celtics ahead by eight, 92-84.
As the Celtics have a natural adversity to blowouts, this one remained close as the clock counted down. Right when the Celtics seemed to be taking the driver’s seat as they stretched their lead to 10, the Pacers ripped out a quick 9-0 run to get themselves back in the mix. When Walker subsequently connected on a pair of smooth midrange jumpers, Indiana found answers in the paint.
Walker helped buoy the Celtics as the fourth quarter started to come to its close, pushing ahead by nine points with less than three minutes to play. But as has been Boston’s forte in recent weeks, some poor execution allowed Indiana to hang around. A late surge by Sabonis narrowed the gap down to just three points with 1:23 remaining in regulation, and on the ensuing possession, Brown stepped out of bounds to hand the ball back to Indiana.
The Pacers failed to capitalize on the turnover, and Daniel Theis connected on a three-pointer to put the Celtics up six. The lead quickly reduced back down, however, as Sabonis scored a three-pointer on an absolutely comical bounce off the top of the backboard. With 18 seconds to play, the Celtics inbounded the ball looking to advance the ball and force Indiana to foul. As this happened, Tatum caught an awkward blow to the lower leg from Indiana’s Edward Sumner, and fell to the ground in pain. He remained in the game, however, and did not appear to be attended to by medical staff. Walker, meanwhile, connected on a pair of free throws to finally seal a clutch victory for the Celtics.
Next up, the Celtics will host the Washington Wizards hoping to kick off an actual winning streak at 7 PM EST on NBC Sports Boston.