Two borderline calls dictated the end of a back-and-forth thriller Monday night, and the Celtics were on the wrong end of both.
After a T.J. McConnell jumper rolled out, Jaylen Brown raced the other way and elevated for a contested baseline jumper with 3.2 seconds left. It appeared as though Buddy Hield slapped him on the head, but the Pacers challenged, and the referees overturned the ruling (looked like the wrong call).
On the other end, the Pacers got the ball to Bennedict Mathurin, and Kristaps Porzingis fouled him behind the 3-point line with 0.6 seconds left (looked like the right call). Mathurin made the first two and purposely missed the second. The Celtics nearly tied it, but Luke Kornet’s acrobatic tip rolled out as time expired.
The Pacers were whistled for a foul on Jaylen Brown's game-winning shot attempt.— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPoints) January 9, 2024
After a challenge, the call was overturned.
Good call or bad call? pic.twitter.com/7rXaxWfHm5
The Pacers survived, 133-131, despite 40 points from Brown. The Celtics (28-8) had won five straight without Jayson Tatum coming in, but the Pacers (21-15) found a way thanks to Mathurin (26 points) and their depth.
Long before the late-game chaos, the action started as expected, as the two teams with the best offensive ratings in the league moved the ball with purpose and precision. Both sides pushed the pace, turned down good shots for great ones and played cohesive, fundamentally sound basketball.
Brown poured in 12 points (6 of 7) in the first quarter, asserting himself as the undisputed alpha in Jayson Tatum’s absence. Derrick White made the extra pass, Al Horford sizzled from the corner and Payton Pritchard buried a 3 at the buzzer to give the Celtics a 34-33 edge through 1.
Both teams shot at least 50 percent, and the Pacers trailed despite hitting half of their 3-pointers. Indiana had 10 assists and Boston nine, as two offensive juggernauts had their way.
The start of the second quarter belonged to Kornet, as it featured a Kornet Contest, Kornet Clear and Kornet Kerfuffle. Let’s back up a second. You probably know what the Kornet Contest is by now, but in this quarter, Kornet also cleared the ball from the top of the backboard on one play and avoided falling for Isaiah Jackson’s trap one another.
You can’t blame Jackson for trying to get the Celtics’ engine ejected. Kornet played just five minutes in the half, but he made his presence felt.
Isaiah Jackson trying to get Boston's top star, Luke Kornet, ejected from the game. Kornet doesn't take the bait. Great discipline to avoid a response and instead takes out frustration on his teammates' hands. pic.twitter.com/noDFfohOxF— Marc D'Amico (@Marc_DAmico) January 9, 2024
The teams continued to trade buckets, which yielded a 50-50 tie with 5:14 remaining. Then the Celtics ratcheted up the intensity defensively, closing the half on an 18-9 flurry to take a 68-59 edge into the break. They finished with 32 points in the paint and got just about whatever they wanted.
Brown, who scored personal-best 25 points in the first half (11 of 14) provided 13 of the 18 points during the run, sizing up old friend Aaron Nesmith and burying shots in his eye. He showed the full arsenal, unleashing a series of spin moves, stepbacks and swoops to the hoop.
It was an impressive end to the half for the Celtics, but it came with an unfortunate caveat. With 3:10 left in the half, Pacers superstar Tyrese Haliburton slipped and did almost a full split. He tried to walk it off, but he had trouble doing so, so he covered his head with a towel and let his teammates carry him off.
The Pacers tweeted that Haliburton strained his left hamstring and would not return.
Tyrese Haliburton had to be carried to the locker room after doing the splits on a fall— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) January 9, 2024
Hope he's okay pic.twitter.com/Z2REIkW6eh
Mathurin led the Pacers with 15 off the bench, but Indiana had to forge on without its No. 1 option.
Fortunately for Indiana, the energizer McConnell was up for the challenge. The Pacers came out flying to start the half, scoring 31 points in the first seven minutes of the half to take an 90-89 edge. McConnell motored around the court, Wakefield’s own Bruce Brown found a rhythm and Nesmith continued to play with force.
Coach Joe Mazzulla elected to let it play out, and Brown and Pritchard stabilized the Celtics late in the third. The Pacers led, 103-101, through a frenetic three quarters. It was the first time since 2004 that both the Celtics and their opponent scored 100-plus through three.
The Celtics started the fourth with a Pritchard-White-Svi Mykhailiuk-Horford-Kornet lineup and Indiana pushed the pace to take a seven-point edge. White found a rhythm, Jrue Holiday delivered at the rim and Horford drained a top-of-the-key 3 to tie it at 124 with 3:25 remaining.
The Pacers took a five-point edge on a Nesmith hoop, then Brown scored back-to-back buckets and found Porzingis for a go-ahead 3. Boston had its chances late, but Indiana prevailed in the final seconds to even the season series at two apiece.