While they’re not one of the elite teams in the Eastern Conference, the Pacers still boast some legitimate talent and could easily become a thorn in the Celtics' side if they don’t come into the game with a laser focus on gaining a result. At this time of the season, when chasing seeding, or at the very least, looking to secure your current spot in the standings, every game matters, especially the one’s you’re supposed to be winning.
With that being said, here are 3 things to watch out for in Friday’s game against Indiana.
Use rim pressure to create scoring chances
The Pacers do one thing on defense, and they do it well: protect the rim. In fact, Indiana is ranked 4th in the NBA for rim defense, restricting opposing teams to 63.4% within four feet of the basket. Everywhere else, though? It’s open season. The Pacers are 21st in mid-range defense, 23rd in defending the corner three, and 22nd in perimeter defense as a whole, per Cleaning The Glass.
As such, driving the rock, forcing rotations, collapses, or pulling guys out of position on hard digs, is going to create some easy scoring opportunities for Boston’s litany of shooting talent to take advantage of. Of course, if the Celtics run out a similar starting five to what we saw against the Kings, the Pacers’ big men might be drawn away from the basket, which could allow Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum to thrive in the lane - but that all depends on Indiana’s defensive scheme heading into the game.
Either way, the Celtics boast numerous three and two-level scorers on their roster, so finding ways to hurt the Pacers' defense as they sink to protect the rim shouldn’t prove to be much of a problem.
How deep is the rotation?
During the Celtics' win over the Kings, there was one very noticeable adjustment that Joe Mazzulla made — he went with a shortened eight-man rotation, giving us our first true glimpse of what the playoffs could look like for the Celtics.
With the season drawing to a close, trimming down around the edges is to be expected, but for a coach who was being lamented just last week for his lack of adjustments and not knowing his best rotation, the decision seemed to be a huge step in the right direction. Now, all eyes should be on Mazzulla’s rotation again on Friday, in the hope that he once again keeps his rotations on a short leash until (hopefully) the game enters garbage time.
It’s worth noting, though, that going nine deep wouldn’t be terrible, as that could potentially happen in the playoffs, given the single-skill specialists on the roster, such as Sam Hauser and (maybe?) Payton Pritchard.
Getting Tatum into the post
Tatum’s offense appears to flow better when he can utilize his full repertoire of scoring skills, and like it or loathe it that often starts with allowing him to do some of his work out of the post. High post, low post, it doesn’t matter; the important part is getting him comfortable, allowing him to work his spots, and ultimately building a rhythm.
Given the Pacers’ limited size across the board, allowing Tatum to bully his way to the rim, back down his man and drain a shot over them, or simply draw help by being a threat will only serve to further strengthen Boston’s chances of coming away with a victory.
Of course, it sounds simple, yet as we saw against Sacramento, Mazzulla will likely need to incorporate some actions to give Tatum the best chance of making an impact on the block, be it pinch post, wedge screens, or the like, finding ways to generate mismatches within the flow of the offense will work wonders.
Over the last two seasons, one of the most valid criticisms of this Celtics core is that they’re susceptible to playing down to their competition. With all due respect to a talented but still rebuilding Pacers team, this is a game the Celtics should be winning comfortably. It’s games like these when we get a legitimate indicator of where the team is at in terms of mentality and how prepared they are to lock in and remain focused for the full 48 minutes, regardless of what the game throws at them.
After an impressive win over the Kings removed some of the stink from their losses against the Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz, the Celtics will walk into TD Garden with some swagger, but it’s on them to leave the building with that same spring in their step — something that only comes with handling your business. Personally, I’m quietly confident of a statement performance; however, as we all know, no lead is safe with this Celtics team at the moment.