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Celtics embrace adversity, weather Pacers’ comeback: ‘We’ve got to be battle-tested’

The Celtics, despite blowing a 20-point lead, defeated the Pacers 129-124 and earned a big win, just like Joe Mazzulla wanted. 

Indiana Pacers v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

After the Celtics’ come-from-behind win over the Pelicans on Monday night, Joe Mazzulla sat at the podium and made clear that he embraced the adversity that the night posed. Against New Orleans on Monday, Boston had trailed by 17 early on, but pulled away with a win after a big second half and a clutch fourth quarter.

Mazzulla said he wanted the team to remember that it’s normal to have to earn a win in the NBA, that adversity was good — that not every night is going to be perfect basketball, or a blowout.

“I just hope it happens ten, twelve more times so we can get rid of the entitlement that we’re always supposed to be winning,” Mazzulla said after the win over the Pelicans. “I hope we have to blow leads, I hope all that happens. I really do.”

Just twenty-four hours later, Mazzulla sat at the podium again after another win the team certainly had to earn. In a funny way, his wish had come true. “I got what I wanted,” Mazzulla admitted.

The Celtics, who led the Pacers by 20 late in the first half, blew the lead and fell behind in the third quarter. The TD Garden crowd grew visibly nervous as Indiana embarked on a 26-3 run powered by a fast-paced offense and offensive rebounding. Aaron Nesmith (26 points, 12 rebounds, 7 assists) and Pascal Siakam (23 points) were big for Indiana, but the comeback was a team effort.

“They came out and kind of jumped on us,” Jaylen Brown said of the Pacers’ third-quarter run.

The most striking stat of the night was each team’s respective second-chance points; the Pacers had 32, and the Celtics just 6. Mazzulla said a few missed rebounds were effort plays, but that the vast majority were a byproduct of the Celtics defensive rotations having to match the Pacers’ fast-paced offense, which made putting a body on a rebounder more challenging.

“I felt like we played hard,” Mazzulla said. “I just didn’t think we executed. They put a ton of pressure on your offense.”

But in the closing period, the Celtics responded. Jaylen Brown (25 points on 9-15 FG) hit two of his trademark jumpers early in the fourth, Neemias Queta (+15 in 14 minutes of action) turned a jump ball into a thunderous dunk, and Jrue Holiday (17 points on 6-8 FG) nailed a pull-up three to help turn a 3-point lead into a 9-point advantage.

Seemingly everyone played a role in the fourth quarter success – Jayson Tatum (30 points) hit a pull-up three just moments after checking in to extend the lead to double-digits, and Kristaps Porzingis (17 points, 12 rebounds) drew fouls in consecutive possessions in the closing minutes to help the Celtics hold on, despite the Pacers doing everything they could to stay in it.

“It’s tough to play against them [Indiana] to be honest,” Porzingis said. “They’re always crashing, they’re always staying active, they’re handsy, they can make you look bad. They turned it a little bit ugly, and they made a good run, and they played really hard, and got into us, and they made it a tough game for us.”

And then, came the block party. Derrick White blocked an Aaron Nesmith corner three attempt that would have tied things up with 32 seconds to go. Tatum stuffed a Myles Turner lay-up on the subsequent inbound pass, and then another Nesmith layup attempt in a play that was originally called a foul but overturned upon review.

It was just stifling defense across the board in the most critical sequences of the night.

“You have to be able to win games with your defense,” Mazzulla said. “It’s a tough balance for us because we try to talk about the game as connected, you can’t have one without the other. But there’s moments where they both had to be elite. We had some really good defense down the stretch. Made some winning plays.”

Jaylen Brown noted the team has gotten much better about not losing games they were up double figures in. He explained the team has a certain identity, stemming from Joe Mazzulla and the coaching staff, that it works to maintain, regardless of outcome.

“Together, our team has tried to establish a standard, and that standard embodies a mentality,” Brown said. “Defensively – we got to be a certain effort level every single night. Offensively – share the ball. Rebounding – making sure you block out, making sure you get your guy on the glass.”

When it was all said and done, the Celtics successfully weathered the storm, as uncertain as it may have looked at points.

​​“It’s a learning experience,” Holiday said, echoing Mazzulla’s sentiments on the value of adversity. “We’ve got to be able to be battle-tested. We’ve got to be able to fight through everything, fight through expectations, fight through being up 20 and then somebody having a great third quarter, and then finishing games. If it feels easy the whole time, then what’s the fun in that?”

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