The best team in the NBA became whole entering Thursday’s restart in Indianapolis.
Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford and Robert Williams III – statistically the league’s best lineup last year – started for only the second time this season in an entertaining, yet sloppy 144-138 overtime win against the Pacers.
The Celtics healthy lineup did result in some lineup casualties. Joe Mazzulla juggled lineups early and tightened the rotation late, sitting Grant Williams for the second half, while not playing Mike Muscala, Payton Pritchard and Blake Griffin for the entire game, while going small without Derrick White and Williams III for the final 11 minutes through overtime.
Malcolm Brogdon played 36 minutes and hit 9-of-12 shots, including five threes off the bench while buoying the offense on nights where Tatum struggled to shoot and turned the ball over four times. A masked Brown converted 11-of-24 from the field and hit 3-of-5 from deep in 42 minutes marking his return from his facial fracture. Both committed giveaways in transition late in regulation, Tatum tossing a pass to Tyrese Haliburton and Brown firing one over Horford’s head and out-of-bounds trying to steal a late go-ahead basket.
The Pacers failed to capitalize on either with the score tied 125-125, and Smart made up for five turnovers of his own by scoring seven straight points to start the extra frame playing next to Brogdon. Tatum tried to save a rebound and tossed the ball to Aaron Nesmith underneath for a game-tying three point layup, one of 15 Celtics giveaways in the contest. Brown beat Haliburton for a cutting dunk plays later, Tatum hit a pair of free throws, then sealed the game chasing his own missed three-pointer for a four-point advantage.
“I shot a bull s*** a** shot, Smart got the rebound, it was late clock, so I knew he had to throw it up there,” Tatum said. “You’re always taught, from a kid, that last-second shot, attack the glass, you never know what can happen.”
Tatum finished 9-for-25 after his three over Andrew Nembhard’s tight closeout late in the shot clock barely clipped the rim and fell into Smart’s hands, setting up Tatum’s follow. Tatum collided with Nesmith in the first quarter and the weight of his fall landed on his injured left wrist, which Tatum flexed after quickly popping up from the ground. He tried to test its movement as pain persisted strongest for 5-10 minutes, then lingered after.
The Celtics will try to rest that ailment, along with Tatum’s body in general, during the final 22 games of the regular season. Thursday showed they’ll need to balance that with acclimating the fully available roster. Smart, Brown, Tatum, Horford and Williams III reached 40 minutes played on Thursday, posting a -25 net rating in the win to now get outscored by 6.8 points per 100 possessions this season. White replaced Williams III after six minutes and Tatum didn’t check out until the start of the second quarter, missing his typical first quarter breather.
“I don’t know what the numbers are, but it feels like we haven’t played with that group a lot this season,” Tatum said. “We know what we can get to. It’s just using these last (22) games or so to get back to that point … it was either I left all my shooting in Utah or was still drunk from vacation. That’s how I played tonight. A good stat line, but not really a good game. Glad we won, and (I) just tried to make plays on both ends so we could win and everybody felt better about themselves.”
Mazzulla abandoned the bigger rotations into the second half in what likely amounted to a matchup decision. Boston could still crash the glass with its large wings while the Pacers battered them with a lineup featuring Myles Turner, Buddy Hield, Nesmith, Haliburton and Nembhard that could space the floor from every position. Turner hit 8-of-10 from three in a career night and Haliburton stressed the C’s switching all night while that lineup totaled 21 minutes and averaged 157.1 points per 100 possessions, thrashing Boston’s starters.
A first quarter bench unit including Luke Kornet and Grant got smashed for 150 points per 100 for three minutes. Williams III returned to start the second quarter and Sam Hauser checked in for Grant minutes later, establishing the groundwork for a strong game across 13 minutes with defensive stops and Hauser caught a lead pass from Horford in transition to push the Celtics ahead by 11 points. Tatum returned midway through the second and Williams didn’t play again.
White returned to the bench after a run of 13 straight starts entering the all-star break where he averaged 18.5 points, 4.3 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 1.0 block per game while shooting 41.4% from three. He started 4-for-4 into the second quarter with a trio of catch-and-shoot threes and found Grant for an alley-oop to close the first. Brogdon joined the starters halfway through the second to build a game-high 16 point lead, but the Pacers cut it to 10 before halftime and White sat as the starters let Indiana take the lead to start the third on a 12-2 run.
White played 12 minutes in the second half, Hauser received 10 minutes and recorded a pair of threes and blocks, while Horford and Williams III split center minutes and shot 2-for-5. The best five, Brogdon playing in place of Williams III, finished well enough to win, but still lost their 13 minutes by 4.2 points per 100 possessions.
Six games loom against potential playoff opponents, some chasing the Celtics in the standings, as Mazzulla faces his first challenge since becoming the full-time head coach of the team entering the break. Finding his best five, pockets for rest and clinching the east’s top seed. That strategy could change entirely again on Saturday against the bigger 76ers.
“I think you definitely put a value on trying to get the No. 1 seed,” Mazzulla said last week.