A wild string of officiating decisions and postgame remarks will inevitably grab the headlines from Monday night’s Celtics-Pacers showdown.
After all, referees overturned a seemingly obvious foul call after Buddy Hield visibly struck Brown in the head on a jumper, Joe Mazzulla repeatedly expressed his anticipation for the Last Two Minutes report today, and Jaylen Brown called for a league investigation.
But, though the final seconds were unquestionably puzzling, the Celtics got thoroughly outplayed in the third quarter, and ultimately left it up to chance. And, as Jrue Holiday said in his postgame presser, by that late in the final period, “anything can happen.”
As is customary, the Celtics jumped out to an early lead, and seemed to be in control of the game at the half, leading 68-59. Midway through the second quarter, Tyrese Haliburton was carried off the court in visible pain after slipping and injuring his hamstring. A hush fell over the arena.
Tyrese Haliburton appears to be hurt, and is carried off the court. Really hate to see it.— Noa Dalzell (@NoaDalzellNBA) January 9, 2024
Former teammate and good friend Oshae Brissett stuck by his side as Haliburton lay on the court. pic.twitter.com/o7MPUzQfan
But, rather than folding in the wake of their star point guard’s absence, the Pacers bench rallied behind T.J McConnell, one of the most reliable backup point guards in the league.
“I think they played really well,” Holiday said after posting 21 points and six assists in the loss. “They knew with Tyrese out, who’s their main ball handler, other people are going to have to step up, and they had quite a few tonight that stepped up and did really well.”
Benedict Mathurin scored 26 points for the Pacers, including the game-winning free throws with 0.6 seconds left. Buddy Hield had 15, Obi Toppin 13, and McConnell 12. Aaron Nesmith hit some big ones – finishing with 17 points on 6-10 shooting – and Andrew Nembhard added 9. All in all, the Pacers’ bench outscored the Celtics’ 75 to 27.
A lot of the damage was done in the third quarter, when Indiana exploded for 44 points to turn a 9-point halftime deficit into a 2-point lead entering the final period. Gainbridge Fieldhouse came to its feet as McConnell dove on the floor, deflected passes, and spearheaded an out-hustling the Celtics don’t usually find themselves on the other end of.
“Through that third, they just kind of walked us down,” Holiday said.
Holiday’s coach agreed.
“They played with a little bit of inspiration, almost,” Joe Mazzulla said, then later added: “pure emotion, pure hustle.”
In six of Boston’s eight losses this season, they were thoroughly outplayed in the third (with only the Golden State and Philadelphia losses were exceptions).
In Minneapolis on November 6th, the Celtics were outscored by 8 in the third period. At Charlotte (11/20), they were outscored by 5. In Orlando (11/24), by 9. At Indiana on December 4th, it was a 13-point difference In Oklahoma City, there was a whopping 15-point disparity, and last night, it was 11.
“It’s usually the third. Maybe we don’t come out with the energy that we should,” Holiday said. “That’s the biggest thing that I might say, no matter who’s out there, sometimes in those thirds where — in the first, we just start off so well. Our energy is up, and we’re really physical. That third, we don’t come out the way we’re supposed to. It’s something we got to take care of.”
As of late, they’ve been better. After all, this team holds the best record in the league. But for years, almost inexplicably, the Celtics have struggled to maintain momentum coming out of halftime, and this game was no exception.
“It kind of seemed like we didn’t withstand the punch as well as we could have, and then once we got back to it, it was late in the fourth, and by that time, anything can happen because they’re in such a good rhythm,” Holiday said.
Of course, it’s a game of runs, and the Celtics were right there. After trailing by 5 with 2:23 to go, Jaylen Brown, who hit timely buckets all game long, scored consecutive baskets to bring the team within one. Then, he set up Kristaps Porzingis for a wide-open three-pointer. Swish.
Kristaps Porzingis hits a huge three to audible applause from the Celtics fans here. pic.twitter.com/BKEumvDGsk— Noa Dalzell (@NoaDalzellNBA) January 9, 2024
McConnell responded with a shot of his own to tie things up, and then Brown and McConnell traded misses.
Then, with three seconds to go, Jaylen Brown drove baseline for a pull-up jumper — a shot that had been dropping all night (Brown finished the game with 40 points on 17-26 shooting). Buddy Hield, trailing the play, visibly hit Brown’s head. Referees blew the whistle and Brown was heading to the line for two.
Jaylen Brown on the play:— Noa Dalzell (@NoaDalzellNBA) January 9, 2024
“I went up and asked him [referee James Wiliams] and said, James did I get hit in the head? He said: no." pic.twitter.com/H8BsgdsarA
The Pacers challenged the call, and much to everyone’s surprise, it was overturned.
In his postgame presser, Mazzulla repeatedly brought up “tomorrow at 4 o’clock.” presumably referring to when the Last Two Minutes report would show the referee error later this afternoon.
“I’m not bothered, just Buddy Hield told me that he fouled him, so I can’t wait for the last two-minute report. Four o’clock.”
Joe Mazzulla says Buddy Hield told him he fouled Jaylen Brown on that last play:— Noa Dalzell (@NoaDalzellNBA) January 9, 2024
“I can’t wait for 4pm tomorrow” pic.twitter.com/WgtGic4Feg
Jaylen Brown, in his postgame remarks, repeatedly called for an investigation, particularly frustrated at the fact that referee James Williams denied to him that Hield even hit him on the head.
“I asked again, ‘Are you sure?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ And that’s what pissed me off,” Brown said. “Cause I know I got hit in the head and you see on the replay, it’s pretty obvious I got hit in the head. Then you look me in my eye and tell me that I didn’t. I think that needs to be investigated. Cost my team a game and of course I’m pissed about it.”
On the subsequent play – with just 0.6 on the clock – Kristaps Porzingis fouled Benedict Mathurin, who hit two free throws to put the game out of reach.
But, as Holiday said – anything can happen when you leave it up to chance, and on Monday night, it was hustle play after hustle play that recharged a sleepy Indianapolis crowd and prevented the Celtics from sweeping the two-game weekend series.
Even a defiant Joe Mazzulla could admit it wasn’t the calls that were the deciding factor: “Close games are not necessarily won in the final minutes,” he said.
The Celtics will return to Boston with a 28-8 record – a full 3.5 games ahead in the standings of next-best team in the conference, the Bucks and the 76ers. They remain in a really good place, even if they feel that this one was stolen from them.
And the good news is, in the NBA, you get the chance to redeem yourself quickly. The Celtics face the second-best team in the league, the Minnesota Timberwolves, at TD Garden on Wednesday night.