Celtics Steal Game 1 but Get a Wake Up Call from Less Experienced Pacers

BOSTON — The Celtics look liked they’d put away the Pacers early. A crowd that filled completely for the first 8 p.m. start of the playoffs exploded out of their seats watching a 12-0 Boston run sparked by a Jayson Tatum steal on Aaron Nesmith that fed Jaylen Brown for a one-handed slam. The Celtics scored on four straight possessions. The Pacers missed their first six shots.

Yet in the final seconds, some fans moved toward the exits. Jayson Tatum had missed back-to-back shots trailing by three and Indiana had the ball with 10 seconds remaining. All they had to do was in-bound the ball and hit a pair of free throws to shock the Celtics on their home court. But while Indiana showed their age by turning the ball over 21 times in an even more stunning 133-128 overtime win, Boston flexed its experience in those spots.

“That s*** was chaos,” Tatum said. “That s*** was wild. Just stay present. Stay in the moment. As long as there’s time still on the clock and the game is within reach, we feel like we have a chance. This core group has been in so many big time games, big time moments where we’ve had the lead and lost it and still won, or been down a lot and figured out a way to win. I’ve had a lot of crazy endings in this building, so in a weird way, we’ve been there before. We always believe.”

Brown knocked Andrew Nembhard’s sideline out-of-bounds pass off Pascal Siakam for one of 21 turnovers, the most by Indiana this postseason and only the third time they committed more than 12. An inflection point for the series. Brown knocked down an iconic game-tying three over a late arriving Siakam with two hands behind his back. Tatum scored 10 points in overtime, including a go-ahead post up finish through TJ McConnell’s foul and a decisive pull-up three over two defenders on the following play. The Pacers stayed confident after the game, asserting the opportunity they created for themselves and their experience rallying from losses earlier this postseason, but they squandered a golden opportunity. Boston, meanwhile, nearly lost another gut-wrenching home playoff game.

In a sense — it’s a series.

“I think that early in the playoffs, when we got tested a little bit, we started to separate a bit and we nipped that in the bud in that first round and it’s only brought us closer,” Myles Turner said. “As disappointing as tonight’s loss was, we obviously did some encouraging stuff. It’s one of those things that’s gonna bring us closer as well. You got back to the Milwaukee series, we lost that Game 1. You go back to New York, we lost that Game 1 in a close fashion as well. It’s definitely a long series. That’s the message we’re gonna continue to convey.”

Indiana walked away deeming the giveaways uncharacteristic and set a tone for the pace of the game out of timeout with a 31-22 run to close the first quarter. Boston’s defensive intensity waned, with slow handoffs in switches, drop coverages that empowered Pacers shooters and 14 turnovers of their own. The worst of the night, a botched pick-and-pop between Tatum and Jrue Holiday nearly squandered the game in overtime when Haliburton turned it into three free throws and a two-point lead. Tatum answered immediately, scoring 36 points with 12 rebounds, four assists, three steals and a 12-for-26 shooting line that marked some improvement over previous rounds. Brown added 26 points on 10-for-20 efficiency.

The Celtics knew they’d find the rim throughout this series given the Pacers’ propensity to stay home on shooters. That led to an advantage for Indiana behind the line to begin the night, which they finished 37.1% to Boston’s 33.3%. The Celtics attempted and hit more, a credit to the hedge they deployed late in the Cleveland series to allow for more difficult twos, and even some paint looks, if it limits the opponent’s three point attempts. The Pacers heavily targeted Al Horford like the Cavs did, shooting 47.6% on 21 attempts in the opener. Boston’s pick-and-roll defense fell to the worst in the playoffs (1.09 PPP), according to Synergy data, while they’ve allowed 69.5% shooting at the rim, the third-worst mark among all 16 playoff teams.

“The way that I prepared for this. The shots that at least I felt like I gave up are the shots that I can be ok with the result,” Horford said. “Played good defense. Mid-range pull up jump shots. I definitely will go back and look at it. Even in that regard, I want to be better.”

Xavier Tillman Sr. missed Game 1 for personal reasons, leaving Luke Kornet’s 13 minutes as the lone relief, who similarly gave up 6-for-11 shooting while his stints opposite of Turner forced him to barrel out to the three-point line to contest pick-and-pops. Turner later noted that when Boston switched Horford’s matchup to Siakam, they went to him on his way to 24 points on 12-for-23 shooting. The former Raptor who once ground to a halt offensively against Boston’s wings in the slower-paced Toronto offense played free and in space for his second straight good game with his new team. The Celtics did not try to go small, likely fearing a loss on the boards and lost the bench scoring battle, 30-13.

The persistence to play through Pacers mid-range shooting paid off though, Siakam missing two shots inside the arc late in the fourth and in overtime while Horford blocked Nembhard after his pair of in-between looks nearly delivered an Indiana win in regulation. The Pacers started 12-for-21 from the mid range before missing two in overtime. Joe Mazzulla sprinkled in some zone and pressure looks on defense that led to several Indiana droughts, but the Pacers’ spurts on a night where they finished 53.5% from the field erased a pair of double-digit Celtics leads in the second and third quarters in a matter of minutes. Even one fewer Pacers turnover might’ve burned Boston as they tried to embrace the points available from playing Indiana’s high-speed game.

“A lot of people are gonna talk about the free throw discrepancy,” Turner said. “But at the end of the day, when you have … big time turnovers. We showed our age a little bit tonight. I think being a youthful team in this high stakes of a game, those uncharacteristic mistakes made their way out.”

Bobby Manning

Boston Celtics beat reporter for CLNS Media and host of the Garden Report Celtics Post Game Show. NBA national columnist for Boston Sports Journal. Contributor to SB Nation's CelticsBlog. Host of the Dome Theory Sports and Culture Podcast on CLNS. Syracuse University 2020.

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