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A tense ending: 10 Takeaways from Celtics/Pacers

The Boston Celtics were in total control of the game, and then they weren’t. Still, some exceptional defense secured the win over the Indiana Pacers.

Indiana Pacers v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Fluharty/Getty Images

#1 Attacking the rim

The Boston Celtics leaned into their ability to pressure the rim throughout their game against the Indiana Pacers. They had 16 shots within four feet of the basket. Another 20 came outside of the restricted area but below the free-throw line.

There is so much interior-scoring talent on this roster. They have guys who can create off the dribble and drive the lane. Who can operate out of the post. And who can sit in the dunker spot, providing a different dimension in terms of spacing?

It also helps that both Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are embracing fighting through contact en route to the rim. Both of them generally with the strength match up. Both of them are explosive in their own way. And both of them are reliable finishers around the rim, both in traffic and when moving at speed.

For a team that is often accused of being over-reliant from the 3-point line, Boston has begun to vary their offensive style depending on their opponent. That’s a considerable step forward from the roster we saw last season. I would even argue that becoming a 3-point-heavy offensive team that often overlooks the other scoring levels is this roster floor, and they are playing at their lowest frequency.

We’ve seen enough of their three-level scoring to know that it’s the best version of Mazzulla-ball and brings out the best version of the talent on the roster. Hopefully, we keep seeing more of it moving forward.

#2 Threes were falling

I like when the Celtics pressure the rim. It always appears like it gets Boston in rhythm, and they become more consistent from the perimeter. The Celtics took 36 threes against the Pacers. They hit 17 of them. That’s a 47.2% conversion rate.

Ok, we’re not going to see that type of consistency from the perimeter on a nightly basis. Still, what I liked most was how they didn’t allow themselves to fall into the trap of ‘Oh, our three are falling; let’s shoot more of them.’ Instead, they used their perimeter offense as one of the tools available to them rather than the only tool that mattered.

I wanted to point out the above three, not because it was an otherworldly shot, but because that is a 7’2’’ Kristaps Porzingis hitting the step-back, creating space, and getting his perimeter shot to fall. There's nothing to analyze in this possession; sometimes, it’s just fun to point out a shot that some may have missed and that highlights the elite skillset the Celtics starting center has at his disposal.

Anyway, Boston had four players score three or more of their perimeter attempts against the Pacers. Jrue Holiday went 3-for-3 from deep. Sam Hauser hit 3-of-5, including two shots that he stepped into while running the floor in transition.

And then, we had...

#3Derrick White’s heroics

It started in the first quarter. White had 15 points, 3 assists and 1 rebound. He shot 66.7% from the field and 75% from 3-point range. That’s a statline that most players in the NBA would be pleased with throughout an entire game. White did it in the first quarter.

This season, the Celtics have been blessed with multiple first-quarter weapons. Brown has been one of the more reliable members on the roster in the opening minutes. On Tuesday, it was White’s turn to hold down the fort.

White was aggressive when looking to score. In the above possession, watch how quickly he sees there’s no desirable pass and makes the decision to attack the basket. He spins off his man and gets to his floater game despite having two defenders on him. There’s a level of aggression and purpose that White can find when he’s feeling it, which helps take his game to another level.

However, he didn’t stop there, though.

In the third quarter, the Pacers defended Boston’s “Chin Action” well, limiting a potential pass to Tatum and staying connected on his cut. As such, White flows into a high pick-and-roll with Porzingis, comes off the screen, and gets downhill with the intention of getting his shot off over the defense.

There’s something comforting about knowing White is waiting to operate as a release valve when an action is well-defended. You can trust him to make the right decision and be efficient when he chooses to let his shot go.

White also chipped in as a playmaker, played solid defense and came up clutch with a late-game block, but we’ll get to that in a minute...

#4 Executing on defense under pressure

Late in the fourth quarter, after being in control for pretty much the entirety of the contest, the Celtics found themselves being charged down by the Pacers. On the second night of a back-to-back, some tired legs probably began to creep in. Suddenly, the pressure was on and the Pacers were surging toward what would have been an impressive and unlikely win.

Then, Boston locked back in.

First, you had this stellar block from White, completing his impressive game. And then, you had this block from Tatum.

The Pacers threw in some window dressing by having Buddy Heild curl off two interior screens into the corner. They were likely hoping his cut opened up the middle of the floor as Boston reacted to the threat of a shooter just one pass away. Instead, the Celtics stayed focused and managed to crowd Myles Turner as he looked to get a quick bucket after face-cutting Tatum.

Nope, there was a block waiting for him. Yes, there was still time left on the clock, but you felt the momentum vanish once Tatum got his hand on the rock.

That’s what Boston can do. They can lock in when their backs are against the wall. They can shut you down and limit your shooting attempts. Even when they’re tired, and the game is almost over, Mazzulla’s team can shift gears. It wasn’t the finish most of us expected or the finish most of us wanted, but it was a finish that displayed the Celtic's defensive ability — both on the perimeter and around the rim.

#5 Giving up multiple 2nd chance possessions

6. That’s how many second-chance points the Celtics had compared to the Pacers' 32. Indiana likes to crash the glass. They hustle on rebounds and look to create quick secondary chances. They also do it very well.

In fact, the Pacers almost tripled the Celtics' production on the offensive glass, securing 19 offensive rebounds. They also limited Boston — the best rebounding team in the NBA — to 40 total boards. Indiana wanted those extra possessions. It’s likely part of their system with how they like to push the pace and execute early offense with pitch-aheads, drag screens, and 21 actions.

This was the fifth time the Celtics had faced the Pacers this season. The Celtics knew how their opponent was going to play. Credit to Indiana for finding ways to get to the glass and secure rebounds. I also like that it’s highlighted an area for the Celtics to improve. After all, there’s no such thing as perfection, but striving for it is what takes you from being good to being great.

#6 Another Tatum + Brown game

Until this season, it was common to get a good game from either Tatum or Brown. Having them both perform at an elite level together was a rarity. This year, though, they’re both producing at a high level and are doing it at the same time. Celtics fans have been waiting for this. Things have finally come together in terms of getting both stars locked in at the same time and producing on both ends of the floor.

Brown has been locked in on defense all season. Against the Pacers, i liked this possession where he rotates over as a help to force the turnover. It’s the quick decision-making that impresses me. For multiple years, there has been a narrative that Brown sometimes falls to sleep when playing off-ball defense. This season, that narrative has been silenced due to plays like this, which have been the rule, not the exception.

We’re also seeing Tatum play with more fluidity when going into his pull-up jumper on the perimeter. He’s struggled with that shot this season, but has been more consistent throughout the month of January.

Both of these clips are moments of individual impact. We don’t often see Tatum and Brown operate in actions together. However, what we are seeing is two of the best players at their positions thriving on the same team at the same time. The fact that their impact goes beyond the box score and they’re using each other’s gravity and movement is another reason to be excited.

#7 Gettin’ nerdy with it: Sticking with the slice SLOB

Oftentimes, we expect a designed play to be a series of screening actions with multiple players moving around the court. The more complex it looks, the more genius we think it is. Sometimes, that can be the case. However, more often than not, the simpler the set, the more effective it is. After all, we’ve seen how often Boston carves open defenses with the “Chin Series,” which is literally a pass, a screen, and a ball-side cut.

Mazzulla keeps it simple with his primary sideline out-of-bounds play, too. I’ve pointed this action out on multiple occasions, so I won’t go into stringent detail. What I will say is that even halfway through the season, when teams and coaches know it’s coming, the action still works. That’s how you know you’ve got a good play to get your best player in one of their primary spots.

Here’s the action. An entry pass from Tatum to Holiday. A slice screen (a back/rip screen on the wing) gets Tatum into the post. Post-entry pass (also known as a punch) and boom, Tatum is exactly where he wants to be and has the mismatch.

Bucket.

Simple. Effective. And at times, almost unguardable.

#8 Picturesque basketball

I’ll keep this one short. When basketball is played like this, with all the passing, cutting, rotating, and working for the best shot, it’s a beautiful thing. I love it when the Celtics operate with this type of tempo, decision-making, and selflessness. I also understand you can’t expect this on every possession. So, when we do get to see a possession like this one, I always feel the need to point it out — if I can fit it into the takeaways, of course.

#9 Queta looked better

I noted how Neemias Queta looked “flat” against the New Orleans Pelicans yesterday. He wasn’t bad, he didn’t stand out or do much of anything that made an impact on the game. Against the Pacers, Queta had a better night.

The first thing that stood out to me was the timing of his shot contests. He’s not relying on being bigger or longer than his opponent. He’s timing the release and making a conscious decision on when to contest the shot.

Watch how Queta gathers himself before jumping off two feet to block the shot. By taking that extra beat, he’s reducing the risk of him fouling the shooter, and getting a better feel for when the ball will be in the air. That’s an improvement from how we’ve seen him contest looks earlier in the season.

We see that same patience again here as Queta rotates over to Jalen Smith, gathers himself and gets the block.

One of the biggest knocks on Queta this season has been how susceptible he is to fouling. Adding a timing element to how he contests shots will help reduce some of that risk. Of course, there is still a way to go before you feel comfortable about him guarding in space. That’s why he’s a two-way player. He’s raw and developing. Every little development step is a step in the right direction.

#10 Boston did right by Aaron Nesmith

I’ve spoken and written about this before. The version of Aaron Nesmith we see for the Indiana Pacers is a product of the opportunities he’s had since being traded there in the summer of 2022. The Pacers afforded Nesmith more playing time and more opportunities to play through his mistakes. That allowed him to develop into the player we see now.

However, had he stayed with the Celtics, it’s unlikely he would be so far along in his development. He was behind Tatum and Brown in the rotation. His margin for error was thinner.

Brad Stevens did right by Nesmith — and Romeo Langford, for that matter. He traded both of them to situations where they would get the playing time they needed and would be playing for some of the best coaching staffs in the league. Nesmith took the opportunity and ran with it. Now, he’s a consistent role player on one of the best young teams in the league.

I like seeing Nesmith succeed. I like him having a chip on his shoulder when he faces the Celtics. It wasn’t a mistake to trade him, though. For this version of Nesmith to exist, the Malcolm Brogdon deal had to happen. Brogdon then turned into a Jrue Holiday trade. Everybody won.

Looking Ahead

The Celtics have Wednesday off. They face the Los Angeles Lakers at the TD Garden on Thursday. The last time the Lakers visited Boston, I had flown from the UK to cover the game. That was a year ago now — time flies.

I’m looking forward to a tough match. I’m expecting a big free-throw disparity. I’m expecting Tatum to go nuclear. I’m praying for a win. I’ll be back here on Friday with the takeaways no matter what happens.

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