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Celtics vs Pacers Eastern Conference Finals Preview and Predictions

Aaron Nesmith lined up a game-tying attempt from three against the Celtics on Jan. 30 in the final minute of their last regular season meeting. The Pacers had pushed Boston prior to that point, beating them twice in four meetings prior to that night, and Pascal Siakam suited up for his seventh game with Indiana after the league’s first blockbuster trade prior to the deadline. With Indiana trailing by three after a late rally, Derrick White darted away from his assignment, recognizing a screen to free Nesmith and blocking the former Celtic in the corner. Boston went on to win, 129-124, despite Nesmith posting 26 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists.

Another playoff meeting seemed improbable then, even with the Siakam upgrade, never mind an east finals one. That’s exactly where the two teams meet again for the sixth time this season on Tuesday night. Nesmith remains, helping seal a Game 7 at Madison Square Garden with 19 points on 8-for-8 shooting. Bruce Brown left in the Siakam deal, while Indiana went on to trade Buddy Hield, who averaged 12.7 points and 3.5 assists against Boston while shooting 38.5% from three, to Philadelphia in an effective salary dump. Bennedict Mathurin went down for the year on Mar. 5, so this is a much different Pacers team than Boston saw last.

Yet they remain dangerous. Indiana leads the playoffs in offense after a historic season where only the Celtics surpassed their offensive rating all-time (BOS 122.2, IND 120.5). Head coach Rick Carlisle helped turned around a defense as bad as any in the league to begin the season into a more competent group capable of stunning the high-powered, albeit injured Bucks and Knicks in the first two rounds. The Pacers posted a 114.5 defensive rating over their last 30 games, which ranked 21st, but marked a massive improvement over their 119.3 prior. That number has settled at 118.1 in the playoffs, where they’ve experimented with full court ball pressure.

“This team was very, very much maligned for its defense early in the year,” Carlisle said on Sunday. “They have flipped the script. They won this series with grit and guts and physical play, and pressing 94 feet. And that’s how we beat Milwaukee too. You gotta give these guys a lot of credit for not a total change, but a very significant change in the attitude toward defense, the defiance about the importance of defense and what they did today. Look, I don’t want to make things about shot-making. If you’re right and you’re defending the right way and your heart’s in the right place, you’re gonna make shots.”

The Pacers present a massive change of pace, literally, over Boston’s last two defensively-oriented opponents. Indiana averaged over 102 possessions per game compared to the Celtics’ 98. That gap narrowed to 93-91, though Boston fell to the lowest number of possessions through the first two round, which’ll probably require some adjusting. Only the Knicks attempted more shots per game than Indiana during the regular season, and generating that many possessions allowed them to take the fourth-most threes (34.2). The Siakam addition allowed them to develop a proficiency in the mid-range this postseason (50.7%, 1st) and only the Lakers made more shots per game at the rim, Indiana’s 67.5% efficiency inside finishing fourth among playoff teams.

“We’re not gonna just bring the game to a halt,” Mazzulla said. “We just gotta take what the defense gives us. But I think you gotta manage the margins. You gotta manage the rebounding. You gotta manage the turnovers … they do a good job of not shifting off shooters, defending the ball and then they got some rim protection with (Myles) Turner down there … making sure our spacing’s good, making sure our decision making’s good and making sure we make the right play, whether that’s for a layup, an open shot, a three, whatever that might be.”

That makes Indiana potentially more frustrating to play than any Knicks team short of full health could’ve been. Tyrese Haliburton hasn’t played as consistently as he did early in the regular season, shooting 48.3% from the field and 36.1% from three entering Sunday. He scored 34 points in back-to-back games against New York though, and hit six threes on 12 tries to post 26 in Game 7. That gives the Pacers a star with upside on par with Jalen Brunson and one scoring more efficiently than Jayson Tatum to this point.

Tatum, who averaged 32.5 PPG, 11.0 RPG and 5.8 APG on 57.8% shooting (48.6% 3PT) against Indiana during the year, needs to take over in this series and will likely have to do so while taking fewer threes. The Pacers limited opponents to 29.3 three-point attempts per game during the regular season, the lowest total allowed by any team. Boston managed 37.6 against them, but Indiana could present more opportunity inside, where opponents shot 44.3% from mid range and 65.3% inside. They’ll show Tatum pressure at times and even help at the three-point line in rotation, opening lanes to the basket if Al Horford can pull Turner to the perimeter.

“After the In Season Tournament,” Carlisle said. “We made a decision as a staff that we needed to be better. There was a huge shift the day after Christmas, we played Houston, we started two of our better, more physical defenders. We had Jalen Smith starting at the four along with Myles. We inserted Andrew Nembhard into the lineup. I just told our guys, we’re gonna make a stand and get better. We were on a historic pace offensively, but to get where we are at this moment and where we want to get in this next round and in the future, what we were doing offensively was not sustainable. It just simply was not and not if you can’t consistently guard and rebound. A lot of credit to our guys. The trade for Pascal helped us. He rebounds the ball. He’s another playmaker. Ty had to make some pretty significant adjustments when Ty came on, because there weren’t 20-something shots per game. There were now 16 or 18, or whatever it was … we had some good fortune to get to this moment, but our guys did the work to put us in position to be here.”

This is another big Horford series. He’ll need to defend in space more often, likely switching to limit Indiana’s threes in a series where that margin will again become important. Kristaps Porziņģis will miss at least the first two games and this might not be a Luke Kornet series given the Pacers’ mid-range threats. Xavier Tillman Sr. has only played significant minutes in one game this postseason. The east finals, like last round, will be played every other day, where Horford hasn’t been at his best at least offensively. Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Jrue Holiday can share some defensive responsibility and this matchup might allow for some of the super small lineups many have imagined. Boston actually went to a short stint with Tatum at center in the final game against Indiana, which Horford missed. Boston will miss Porziņģis on both ends here.

Haliburton’s minutes have largely dictated the Pacers’ success throughout the year, Indiana’s net rating 6.7 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor compared to off (84th percentile). Even the team’s defense improved with him on (-3.1 opponent eFG%), but the Siakam addition allowed them to sustain the time he doesn’t play better. After Jan. 19, Siakam’s first Pacers game, Indiana won its non-Haliburton minutes by 1.7 points per 100. Boston, by comparison, won its non-Tatum time by 12.4 points per 100.

Going against a relatively small lineup, taking advantage of mismatches will fall in Tatum and Brown’s hands often as will managing the offense. The Pacers’ ability to play so fast and turn the ball over so rarely is uncanny, and could be another area where they find an advantage on Boston. The Celtics can slow the game down by going at Haliburton (52.9 DFG%), TJ McConnell (52.3 DFG%) and Obi Toppin (48.6 DFG%). During the regular season, they also excelled at attacking Nesmith, statistically the Pacers’ best perimeter defender who gave up 46.8% shooting on over 15.4 shots per game going up against old friends Tatum and Brown.

For Boston, the Pacers present a rare challenge in a team that can outscore them, which will again test their defensive posture, present opportunities to assert a massive offensive rebounding advantage and get both Brown and Tatum going at the highest level by opening lanes to the rim and the free throw line. All reasons the Celtics could win again in five, but I’ll give the Pacers’ shot-making ability and health the chance to force six with Porziņģis hurt.

“With a team like that, you have to have a clear understanding of what shots you’re going to live with and which ones they’re going to get. They’re going to score. They’re going to shoot,” Mazzulla said. “With the threats that they have and the way that they play, you can’t take away everything. But you can be very disciplined in the things that you want to take away … rebounding on both ends of the floor. Getting to the free throw line. I think those things are a way to combat the variance … you’ve seen the variance in the five games that we’ve played against each other work against each team and work for each team … the way it happens in each game could be a little bit different.”

Bobby: Celtics in 6

John Zannis: Celtics in 7

Want to know how to trigger a Celtics fan? Tell them the C’s path to the Finals has been easy. No wait, tell them it’s been boring.

Aaaaahhhh!!!

News flash. It has been easy. The Heat roster the Celtics faced in round 1 wouldn’t have won 30 games this season. Ditto for the Cavs once Donovan Mitchell went down.

Which made rounds 1 and 2….dun dun dun….Boring. Deal with it.

Well, the Pacers are anything but boring. First in points, field goal percentage, assists, second in offensive rating and pace. In short, they bring it. Which is good for the Celtics who haven’t faced a fully healthy quality opponent since early March. The Celtics can’t afford to sleepwalk or slip into their worst tendencies against Indiana because the Pacers can and will make them pay.

Indy plays no defense so Boston should have no trouble scoring. I worry some that there will be so many mismatches all over the floor Boston could resort to too much iso ball which would be a mistake. But that’s not the reason I see this going 7.

It’s been reported that Kristaps Porzingis will miss at least the Celtics first two games with his calf injury, but that there’s optimism he’ll play later in the series. Not from me there’s not. I don’t think we see KP at all outside of a ‘break glass in case of emergency’ elimination situation.

Which means that the Celtics will have to go the majority of the series against the NBA’s number one team in paint points without their best and really only rim protector. I see this being 2-2 headed back to Boston and then maybe we see KP return but again, I’m dubious. Celtics make us sweat but manage to squeak this series out in 7 and head back to the NBA Finals for the second time in 3 years.

Josue Pavon: Celtics in 6

The Indiana Pacers’ explosive offense took over in the second half of their Game 7 win against the New York Knicks on Sunday, but their focus on defense set the tone en route to a blowout win. However, the Celtics’ elite offense is different, especially when it’s keyed in on defense — starting and ending with Celtics leaders Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, and Jrue Holiday.

Pascal Siakam’s offensive efficiency, coupled with Tyrese Halliburton’s top-tier shooting and Myles Turner’s post-game, will beat the Celtics in one game this series, possibly two if Indiana’s bench catches fire on the same night Boston’s second unit comes out flat. Against the Pacers, the consequences of no Kristaps Porzingis grow deeper as Boston goes into the Eastern Conference Finals.

Tatum, Brown, and Jrue Holiday, making his second appearance in ECF will lead the Celtics to victory most nights when the vast experience of these three veterans takes over. Their offensive rhythm from finishing off the Cavs will carry into TD Garden and beyond.

The Celtics can win this series without Porzingis, his absence is not fatal for Boston’s chances but unlike Miami and Cleveland, it’s going to take the Celtics six games to get to the Finals, possibly five if Kristaps returns.

Jimmy Toscano: Celtics in 6 

Finally a series! I know I speak for some Celtics fans when I say the first two playoff series left a lot to be desired from a competitive standpoint. But beating up on the Pacers would move the needle, a bit anyways. I like Indy, always have. This Pacers team has a lethal offense and wants to showcase it, over and over. Stay out of the track meet if you’re Boston. Stay out Aaron Nesmith’s way too. The only way the Pacers have a chance is if Boston falls into the solo player game, and stops trying to defense.  That being said, I expect Indy to bring it at home for Game 4 and 5, but I don’t know about much after that.

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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