7:00 PM EST, TNT – Line: Celtics -7.5, Over/Under: 203
After a flurry of upsets on Saturday, the NBA Playoffs returned to some normalcy as the higher seeds took care of their opposition, which was the case with the Boston Celtics, who look to take a commanding two-game lead over the Indiana Pacers in Game Two of their First Round Series from TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. As we’ve stated before, this Playoff Field has served as a referendum on the value of coaching in basketball, with the Pacers (48-34, 5th in Eastern Conference) a prime example, after advancing to the Playoffs for the second consecutive year under the guiding hand of Nate McMillan. While giving the eventual East Champions, the Cleveland Cavaliers, everything they could handle in an epic seven-game series. This season, he and his Coaching Staff have been even more impressive, not only improving on their development from the previous term, but keeping Indiana afloat after the unfortunate season-ending injury to reigning Most Improved Player, Victor Oladipo (18.8 PTS, 42.3% FG, 34.3% 3FG, 5.6 REB, 5.2 AST, 1.7 STL, 17.6 PER). The young Shooting Guard earned his second consecutive All-Star selection since arriving in Indianapolis two summers ago in the franchise-altering Paul Geroge Trade, evolving into one of the league’s brighter young talents in the process. However, after rupturing his Right Quadricep Tendon back on January 26th, everything changed. At that point in time, the Pacers were a stellar 32-16 with a firm grip on the Three Seed in the Eastern Conference, and much closer to moving up the pecking order in the Standings, than falling to where they are now. Since that fateful injury, McMillan’s charges have gone 15-18, finally succumbing to attrition after initially winning eight out of twelve contests. Needless to say, the veteran Head Coach had to change his strategy, urging his troops to double down on the defensive end of the court, so that they could create easier opportunities on the opposite end, for without Oladipo’s presence, buckets were going to be even more difficult to come by. On the season, this has been arguably the most formidable defensive team in the league, allowing an NBA-best 104.7 Points per Game (1st Overall) on 47.5% shooting from the field (6th Overall), including 50.7% from within the arc (7th Overall) and 35.4% beyond it (14th Overall), while forcing 15.7 Turnovers (5th Overall), 8.7 of which being Steals (3rd Overall). Furthermore, they’ve done a remarkable of job of defending WITHOUT fouling, committing an average of just 19.4 Personal Fouls (4th Overall), leading 21.0 Fee-Throws attempted against them (6th Overall) for a solid .184 FT/FGA Ratio (5th Overall). Simply put, these guys rarely beat themselves in this regard. However, in a cruel twist of fate, this is precisely where they’ve slipped, particularly down the stretch where the Pacers had lost nine of their final twelve outings to close out the Regular Season. Since the All-Star Break, Indiana has relinquished 109.0 Points per Game on 46.0% shooting from the field, including 35.6% from downtown, while yielding more Assists (25.2), forcing fewer Turnovers (14.0), and getting outrebounded by a margin of 3.3 Boards a Night.
Injuries to other members of their Rotation certainly played a role in their decline Post-All-Star Break, but it’s also important to remember that McMillan was also sitting a number of them in an effort to preserve them for the Playoffs, where the slower pace of play better suits them. For much of Game One’s 74-84 loss against the Boston Celtics, it seemed as if that was the case, for Indiana led 45-38 at Halftime (and as much as Eleven in the Second Quarter), turning the affair into a dogged, brawl in a phone booth. However, they were eventually beaten at their own game, only mustering a scant EIGHT Points in the Third Quarter, as Boston rallied back to take a lead that they would not relinquish. This is where their offensive deficiencies really came into play, for the overall shooting display from the visiting side was enough to make even the most optimistic member of their fan base nauseous; the Pacers shot a miserable 33.3% from the field, including 6-of-27 from beyond the arc (22.2%), while also missing nearly half of their Free-Throws (12-of-21, 57.1%). Furthermore, they managed to assist on all but Six of their Twenty-Eight Field Goals, meaning that even despite moving the basketball, this was all that the offense that they could manufacture. Veteran Bosnian Swingman Bojan Bogdanovic (18.0 PTS, 49.7% FG, 42.5% 3FG, 4.1 REB, 2.0 AST, 0.9 STL, 16.1 PER), who has carried much of the load since Oladipo’s injury, was the only Starter to score in double-figures, scoring Twelve Points on 4-of-11 shooting (36.4%), with the rest of the Starting Five combining for just Twenty-Six Points on an anemic 11-of-33 overall (33.3%). Darren Collison (11.2 PTS, 46.7% FG, 40.7% 3FG, 3.1 REB, 6.0 AST, 1.4 STL, 16.7 PER) in particular had a rough night, netting just 3-of-11 attempts from the floor (27.3%) for Six Points, racking up nearly as many Fouls (4) as Assists (5). All in all, it was an offensive performance that may have in fact set the game back a few decades, with the visitors scoring just Twenty-Nine Points in the Second Half, (unsurprisingly) their least of the season. We’d imagine that McMillan has burned the tape from this affair already, for a new approach will be needed to turn things around, and it will be needed QUICKLY…
Meanwhile, after a Regular Season that saw them fall considerably short of lofty expectations, the Celtics (49-33, 4th in Eastern Conference) appear to have been granted a boon courtesy of the Basketball Gods, in this First Round Series with the flailing Indiana Pacers. By now we sure that you’re all familiar with story of this team, who with LeBron James’ departure from the East, were branded by many as the de facto favorite in the East. And why shouldn’t they have been? After consecutive trips to the Eastern Conference Finals, Boston was loaded heading into 2018-2019, with a the returns of a healthy Kyrie Irving (23.8 PTS, 48.7% FG, 40.1% 3FG, 5.0 REB, 6.9 AST, 1.5 STL, 0.5 BLK, 24.3 PER) and Gordon Hayward (11.5 PTS, 46.6% FG, 33.3% 3FG, 4.5 REB, 3.4 AST, 0.9 STL, 15.6 PER) coupled with the expected development of the young role players that stepped up in their absence, this group looked like by far and away the most complete team in a conference, where quite frankly, legitimate competition can be hard to come by. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why the games aren’t decided on paper… Simply put, the Celtics have been a proverbial Rubix Cube throughout the season, and just when Brad Stevens and his Coaching Staff appear to have things settled, something happens to shuffle the pieces all over again. Consistency has been very difficult to come by for this team, with their chemistry consistently being taken to task; Irving’s leadership has come under fire on multiple occasions, with the younger players that featured so prominently in the absence of their more heralded teammates have frequently voiced their frustrations over fewer minutes, while Hayward has struggled to find his place in this crowded Rotation after missing the entirety of his first season in Boston with a gruesome dislocated foot suffered in the Opener. Injuries have played a role too, with Irving missing Fifteen Games throughout the term, with the fact that his teammates have done rather well without him (12-3 in his absence), pouring further fuel on the fires of his potential exit in Free Agency. Essentially, it’s been quite a mess for Stevens, who in the face of all these obstacles has been forced to keep his at times dysfunctional charges together under threat of a much-improved Eastern Conference, with teams like the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, and Philadelphia 76ers all passing them in the Standings. It should also be noted that they simply haven’t played well since the All-Star Break either, going 12-12 since that intermission, slipping significantly on the defensive end of the court; Boston has relinquished 111.3 Points on 46.1% shooting from the field, including 35.3% from beyond the arc, while permitting more Assists (25.7), forcing fewer Turnovers (13.5), and getting outrebounded by 3.9 Boards per Game. With that said, there is a potential silver lining to be found, for after viewing how these cards have been dealt, matching up with Indiana is arguably the best thing to happen to them. Yes, earning the Fourth Seed and setting up a date with (almost certainly) Milwaukee in the East Semifinals is far from ideal, but given the glaring weaknesses of their current opponent, this could be a golden opportunity to correct course and build some precious momentum. The only clear advantage that the Celtics really have over a team like the Bucks is Postseason Experience, and using this series with the Pacers as a training ground in preparation for what’s to come could be a godsend. After all, look how some of their counterparts are faring in their own Series (I.E. the Raptors and 76ers).
By all means, matching up with either the Orlando Magic or Brooklyn Nets would have been an entirely different story for the Celtics, who instead have been afforded the luxury of facing the Indiana Pacers, who (if Game One’s 84-74 victory was any indication) simply don’t the requisite firepower to pose much of a threat in this First Round Series. Put this into context, folks: despite starting very slow, Boston only needed Eighty-Four Points to best their opponent (and by Ten Points, no less), and in doing so posted their lowest point total of the season. Furthermore, it also marked the first time in which Stevens’ troops managed to win a game this term despite scoring fewer than 100 Points. Indeed, it was an ugly shooting night for the hosts, who succeeded in the fact that they were less-ugly than their counterpart, shooting 36.4% from the field, including 10-of-28 from downtown (35.7%), and 18-of-22 from the Charity Stripe (81.8%). However, sloppy play, particularly in the First Half, nearly spoiled the whole night, for the home side committed nearly as many Turnovers (17) as Assists. With that said, five different players scored in double-figures led by the aforementioned Irving, who in his first Playoff Game with the franchise, logged Twenty Points on 6-of-17 shooting (35.3%), along with Five Rebounds, Seven Assists, and a pair of Steals, while Marcus Morris (13.9 PTS, 44.7% FG, 37.5% 3FG, 6.1 REB, 1.5 AST, 0.6 STL, 14.2 PER) came off the Bench with Twenty as well, on 5-of-12 from the floor (41.7%), including 7-of-9 from the Line (77.8%). Last year’s Rookie Sensation, Jayson Tatum (15.7 PTS, 45.0% FG, 37.3% 3FG, 6.0 REB, 2.1 AST, 1.1 STL, 0.7 BLK, 15.1PER), added Fifteen Points on an efficient 6-of-11 shooting (54.5%), including a perfect 3-of-3 from downtown (100.0%), with veteran Power Forward Al Horford (13.6 PTS, 53.5% FG, 36.0% 3FG, 6.7 REB, 4.2 AST, 0.9 STL, 1.3 BLK, 20.2 PER) once again filling up the stat sheet with Ten Points, Eleven Rebounds, Five Assists, and a Steal. Trailing by Seven Points at Halftime, Boston erupted in the Third Quarter, going on a 22-3 run and eventually leading by as many as Twenty-Two, while Indiana didn’t make good on their first Field Goal of the stanza until the 3:38 mark.