BOSTON – It was the type of half that may have broken this Celtics team at different points this season. Open shots that didn’t fall. Transition chances allowed. Opportunities to cut into a deficit met with frustration, and unfortunate bounces the other way leading to slumped shoulders and furrowed brows.
All year, Celtics coach Brad Stevens has lamented how this team has too often allowed its struggles on offense to affect its defense. Only on this day, these Celtics chose to lean on their defense to resurrect their offense in an 84-74, Game 1 triumph that was far more back-alley street brawl than high-class art exhibit.
“You’ve got to stay together and you’ve to grind it out,” Stevens said. “So there will be games where we make a lot of shots and it will make us look better than we played. Today we played a little better than we looked.”
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Stevens set the tone for that resolve to start the second half when he declined what might have been an immediate urge to shake up the starting lineup. Marcus Morris delivered 15 points of the bench, while Gordon Hayward was the team’s best player in the half with six points, five rebounds and four assists, yet the coach elected to stick with the starting unit that combined to manage just 16 points in the first 24 minutes.
It was done for defense. And punishing, demoralizing defense is what the crew provided to start the third quarter, which carried through almost the entire rest of the game. The Pacers went the first 8:32 of the half without a basket until a goaltending call, had only one ball actually go through the hoop in the half with 9:39 left in the fourth, as part of a 41-12 run that was deliciously brutal.
“It’s fun playing like that,” Aron Baynes declared. “You saw a lot of good emotion from our guys. We know when we play that style of basketball within Brad’s system that it’s going to be good for us.”
The defense came from all corners that seemed to cover every inch of the parquet. But it was especially impressive from a guy like Jaylen Brown, who was 0-for-3 and a minus-13 in the first half, yet came through a dunk that got the third quarter rolling, and eight minutes of shutdown pressure, creeping into the psyche of Indiana’s all-but-invisible leading scorer Bojan Bogdanovic.
Then it was contagious. From the typically stalwart Baynes and Al Horford, to the occasionally erratic Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum, everyone locked in and everyone locked down the Pacers.
“We’ve got to get back to that identity,” Hayward said. “I think we have the capability to really defend because of all of our versatility. Guys can guard multiple positions. If we guard like that, we give ourselves a chance.”
Then a funny thing happened. Instead of offensive shot-making leading to spirited defensive effort, the script flipped and it was rebounding, paint protection and control of the initial point of attack that lead to shots going down the way they have not gone down for some players in quite a while.
When Terry Rozier capped a 26-8 third quarter throttling with a buzzer-bearing 3-pointer, the enthusiasm that poured out of him pulsated through the entire arena.
“Oh mate, that was pretty bloody great,” Baynes said. “Definitely, a bit of momentum for us. It’s good to see him go out there and knock down. Because anytime that rim looks a bit bigger for him, it’s a good thing for us.”
Any Game 1 victory is good for any playoff team. But this type of win might have been the most beneficial of all for a team that sorely needed a lesson in resolve for most of the regular season. It was the type of win that showed the Celtics they can take a punch, and deliver one back even harder. It was the type of win that proved this is a team that can get its hands dirty enough to save the day on an afternoon when dressing up in the Sunday’s best was not going to get it done.
“It was one of those gritty games,” Horford said, “where you have to continue to do the little things.”
Those are things this team has not exactly excelled at for most of this season. But those are the things that won Game 1.
And those are the things that will ultimately allow this team to show that lessons have been learned from regular season missteps, and that reaching its enormous potential is still within its grasp.
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