BOSTON — Tyrese Haliburton tossed in a three before halftime that capped the kind of 7-2 run that Joe Mazzulla despises. The Celtics led by 20 points only 82 seconds later, nearly setting a new high for efficiency in half by shooting over 65%, until Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum fired up a pair of misses from three and Obi Toppin and Tyrese Haliburton poured in put-backs the other way. That let-up, however brief, spilled into the second half as the Pacers raced back on a 35-14 explosion to take a lead midway through the third, 94-93.
“If you watched 19 of them, I’d say 10 of (the offensive rebounds) were controllable,” Mazzulla said. “Their pace puts a ton of pressure and you’re constantly in rotations. Any time you’re in rotations, you can’t find a guy in particular. So I felt like we played hard, I just didn’t feel like we executed. They put a ton of pressure with your offense … a byproduct of their motion offense and us trying to be in shifts and constantly moving us. That’s a hard-playing team … they were shooting 20-something, and we were shooting 50-something from three in the first half. I knew that was going to even itself out at some point.”
The Celtics answered, 13-9, into the fourth quarter to regain a lead on a run capped by Jayson Tatum racing the floor and unloading a pass to Neemias Queta underneath the net for a dunk behind Indiana’s defense. Buddy Hield threw his hands up as Indiana entered the timeout between periods in confusion having only erupted along that sideline moments earlier after forcing a turnover on Derrick White.
Rick Carlisle called his team’s success this season fragile before the game, and that showed at several points in Tuesday’s loss, but another Pacers scramble, 6-0, with under two minutes remaining pulled Indiana back within three with Aaron Nesmith pulling up from the corner. Derrick White blocked it, jumping the screen before Kristaps Porzingis stuffed Pascal Siakam on the ensuing try inside. Boston escaped, 129-124.
The fifth and final meeting, for now, between the Celtics and Pacers reminded Boston of the specific threat Indiana poses only getting bolstered by Siakam’s arrival and internal improvement. Haliburton returned from missing 10-of-11 games with a hamstring injury suffered at home against the Celtics, Indiana rallying and winning after he went down in the first half of the eventual Boston loss. He sat for the fourth quarter trailing only 106-103. Nesmith took the lead, dropping a pair of dimes and baskets at the rim to produce four of Indiana’s final eight baskets on his way to 26 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists in arguably his finest performance as a pro.
“He’s been balling. He has a chip on his shoulder from being traded and all the things that were said about him when he got traded,” Haliburton told CLNS Media. “That’s what we love about him. To be able to sign him to a deal long-term for him to be here is really exciting, because he’s an amazing player. Aaron Nesmith is a player that every team in the NBA wants. You want a guy like Aaron who’ll just do whatever you ask, puts his head down and works. That’s what we love about him. There’s definitely some extra juice for him when he plays Boston and that’s cool to see.”
Siakam, playing only his second game alongside Haliburton since joining Indiana and first against the Celtics, stopped short of calling the matchup a rivalry and credited some of the fervor surrounding the game to national TV. The matchup continued to challenge Boston in unique ways though, with a rare fifth regular season meeting between teams occurring due to the Celtics’ In-Season Tournament loss. Porzingis missed that game, as Haliburton did when Boston opened the season by pouring 155 points on the Pacers. Tatum’s threes overcame Porzingis’ absence in the first game of a mini series on the road before a controversial no-call on Buddy Hield sealed a second Pacers victory against the Celtics two nights later.
Tensions flared on Tuesday as well when Hield shot on the Celtics’ basket twice between plays, which Mazzulla later said should’ve been met with Boston players blocking it. Sam Cassell, Charles Lee and Tony Dobbins jarred with the Pacers guard several times before reconciling post-game with handshakes and hugs. Brown and Jrue Holiday gave Nesmith a warm meeting after the game, leaving some of the post-game coldness evident following Celtics-Heat last week, along with the recent playoff history, out of picture for now in whatever history the two teams began building this year. One Rick Carlisle also showed pause on embracing.
“I’m not really into feel-good type stuff,” Carlisle told CLNS pre-game. “I like where we’re at, I like the growth we’ve shown, but it’s all very fragile. It’s just all very fragile.”
Indiana’s 26th-ranked defense, which showed in giving up 81 first half points to the Celtics, along with sixth-place status in the east only 2.5 games above the Magic and Heat above the play-in tournament line make the Pacers no certain second round opponent. Should they fall into first-round position against Boston, however, their ability to turn up the pace (102.8 poss, 2nd), maintaining the top-ranked offensive efficiency (58 eFG%), and adding to it a more methodical post scoring and isolation option for late in games could push the Celtics 6-7 games in a series similar to how the Hawks did last postseason. Indiana’s offensive rebounding advantage (19-7) recalled Atlanta’s.
Of the other seven teams in the east’s top-eight, the Pacers rank third in terms of field goal percentage (46.3%) against the Celtics in their meetings, behind the Bucks and Cavaliers, and second behind only Milwaukee in points per game (116.8). With Miami on a seven-game slide amid the Terry Rozier trade, they’ll always remain on the Celtics’ minds given their recent playoff meetings and the pedigree of Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. Between Haliburton and Siakam, however, the Pacers began building their own prolific combination on Tuesday.
With late bursts in the second and fourth quarters, they nearly made stealing a game in Boston their first act by holding the Celtics to 48 second half points, the Pacers swapping defensive matchups, while Boston went back to zone looks and small ball, with a fourth quarter Neemias Queta cameo sparking the team’s 23-21 finish.
“You can tell that they’re playing for something, that they’re fighting for something,” Holiday said in the locker room, wiping his bloody lip with a towel. “That’s a sign of a really good team. Young or not, they play very, very hard. You can tell that they lock into each other. The way that they compete together is really important, and you can see it with the way that they play … I really couldn’t tell you if they want something that we have. It has to be fun … to be good and know that everybody’s gonna come after you … it’s good to be good. There’s a lot of pressure over here, but I feel like that’s what battle tests us and makes us a good team is we can push through games where you play against a good team like Indiana on back-to-back who you know is gonna come in start playing hard.”