7:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Celtics -2.5, Over/Under: 219
Though they’re separated by just one game in the standings, these teams are traveling in VERY different directions, as the Indiana Pacers travel to the Northeast to battle the fading Boston Celtics from TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. Perpetually flying under the radar, we’d forgive you if you failed to notice the reboot that is occurring within the Pacers (15-15, 4th in Eastern Conference) this season, as they look to finally break out of the glut of teams that reside in the middle of the East, and in turn break into the loftier levels of the conference’s hierarchy. It’s long been said that arguably the worst place for a franchise in the National Basketball Association to reside is in the middle, and that is precisely where Indiana has found itself for what seems like the better part of the last decade. Since advancing to back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals in 2013 and 2014, the team has made the Playoffs in each of the last five seasons, though have failed to escape the First Round on every occasion. This is never going to be an organization that will succumb to tanking, though at the same time they’re probably never going to be mentioned as a free agent destination either, so with that said, what are they supposed to do when it comes to taking the next step of their development? Clearly, (General Manager) Kevin Pritchard felt that the roster had plateaued under (veteran Head Coach) Nate McMillan had reached four straight postseasons, but failed to ascend any higher, on the strength of a deliberate, plodding brand of basketball that has been by and large phased out of the league at this point. So in the attempt to modernize the way they play, Pritchard went to what ahs become one of the hottest coaching trees in the NBA, hiring Nate Bjorkgren to be their new Head Coach. The 45-year old had spent the last two years as one of Nick Nurse’s top assistants with the Toronto Raptors, who of course hoisted the Larry O’Brien trophy back in 2019. With a new figure to lead them, the next transition would be the roster, which underwent a MAJOR change as the Pacers took part in the four-team blockbuster deal that ultimately sent (2017-2018 MVP) James Harden to Brooklyn. Lost in the enormity of the trade, Indiana sent (All-Star Guard) Victor Oladipo to the Houston Rockets in exchange for a 2023 Second Round Pick, while also acquiring the rights to (promising Guard) Caris LeVert (18.5 PTS, 43.5% FG, 34.9% 3FG, 4.3 REB, 6.0 AST, 1.1 STL, 19.2 PER) from Brooklyn. Pritchard was never going to re-sign Oladipo after this season, particularly when you consider what the 28-year old was projected to command on the open market, and the fact that after missing much of the previous two seasons with knee injuries wasn’t close to the player that he was when they acquired him from the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Summer of 2017 as part of the Paul George deal. LeVert on the other hand, is two years younger, sports a higher ceiling, and is on a much more team-friendly deal for the next two seasons after this one, but is unfortunately set to miss the rest of this season after the physical following the aforementioned trade revealed a cancerous mass on his kidney. With that said, he’s expected to make a full recovery. Focusing on what they do have on the hardwood on the moment, and the Pacers have some interesting pieces for Bjorkgren make use of. (Emerging Forward) Domantas Sabonis (21.5 PTS, 52.9% FG, 34.9% 3FG, 11.7 REB, 5.7 AST, 1.0 STL, 0.7 BLK, 20.6 PER) was another piece of that George trade, and has steadily developed into one of the better young big men in the NBA; the 24-year old is of course the son of basketball legend, Arvydas, followed up his first All-Star selection with career-highs in a slew of categories including points (21.5), assists (5.7), steals (1.0), and blocks (0.7). His development has in turn made fellow big man, Myles Turner (13.3 PTS, 48.9% FG, 32.0% 3FG, 6.6 REB, 1.0 AST, 1.0 STL, 3.4 BLK, 16.8 PER), expendable as Pritchard has reportedly been shopping the fellow 24-year old on the trade market. It’s not that Turner isn’t effective, he’s leading the league in blocks at a staggering 3.4 per game, and is capable of stepping out and hitting the three on occasion (32.0%). It’s just that he’s redundant, with those lineups that feature both bigs that McMillan favored so much proving to have no place in Bjorkgren’s gameplan. You get the sense that Indiana would love to open things up more on the offensive end, where they’ve already got plenty of shooters who make the open shot; Malcolm Brogdon (21.7 PTS, 44.4% FG, 38.7% 3FG, 4.8 REB, 6.4 AST, 1.3 STL, 18.1 PER), who has long been one of the best 3 & D players in the game, has flourished since he was poached from division rival, Milwaukee, averaging a career-high 21.7 assists, along with 6.4 rebounds and 1.3 steals, while (sharpshooters) Doug McDermott (13.1 PTS, 50.9% FG, 35.4% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 1.4 AST, 14.0 PER) and Jeremy Lamb (12.2 PTS, 50.7% FG, 50.0% 3FG, 4.2 REB, 1.5 AST, 0.8 STL, 17.6 PER) have both settled nicely into their roles on the perimeter. With the Trade Deadline (March 25th) roughly a month away, it should be interesting to see how the Pacers approach it. If they can maintain their standing in the East they’re likely to stay put, but you get the sense that long term that this group is far from a finished product with changes to come further down the road.
“We played hard, we just didn’t make baskets at the end.”Myles Turner on the Pacers 111-107 loss in their first game since their previous two were postponed due to COVID-19
When we last saw the Pacers, they finally got back to work on the hardwood after missing a pair of games over the course of a week due to COVID-19 induced postponements. You think they would have been well-rested but instead looked a bit rusty in a 111-107 loss at home to the Golden State Warriors, an affair in which the visiting side managed to pull away in the latter stages of the contest. Golden State closed it out on a 6-0 run keyed by Draymond Green, who threw down back-to-back dunks before getting some key defensive stops to finally fend off the hosts. Indeed, Indiana simply didn’t do enough in the Fourth Quarter where they shot just 8-of-18 from the field (44.4%), including 3-of-9 from beyond the arc (33.3%), in comparison to 9-of-16 (56.2%) of their opponent, and in the end shot just 7-of-29 from downtown (24.1%) and committed a disappointing nineteen turnovers, which proved to be the key. The Warriors managed to capitalize on their errors far more than the home side did, turning those nineteen turnovers into twenty-three points, while Bjorkgren’s charges could only manufacture the visiting side’s eighteen into twelve points. With all that said, the game pan was indeed sound enough to come away with a win; Indiana hounded (two-time MVP) Stephen Curry throughout the affair, limiting him to twenty-four points on 7-of-21 shooting overall (33.3%), including 1-of-11 from three (9.1%), and four turnovers. In the end, Brogdon and Sabonis accounted for forty-six points on a stellar 17-of-32 shooting (53.1%), and 12-of-16 from the charity stripe (75.0%), with the latter posting his twenty-fourth Double-Double of the campaign, and fifteen of his twenty-two points and seven of his sixteen rebounds coming in the Second Quarter alone. Turner would add fourteen points and eight rebounds in defeat, while McDermott contributed with fifteen points. (Backup Point Guard) T.J. McConnell (5.9 PTS, 50.7% FG, 35.3% 3FG, 3.4 REB, 6.6 AST, 1.8 STL, 15.3 PER), who has averaged a career-high 6.6 assists thus far, played well too in totaling nine points, five rebounds, and six assists, along with four steals in just over twenty-seven minutes of action.
Meanwhile, as their opponent meticulously looks for a way to escape the NBA’s middle-class, the Celtics (15-17, 9th in Eastern Conference) have long resided within another sphere altogether, though suddenly find themselves simply fighting for their very postseason lives. Needless to say, this franchise (who is tied for the most Larry O’Brien trophies in league history with seventeen) has not only been a mainstay in the Playoffs over the last decade, but they’ve come ridiculously close to getting to the Finals on several occasions; Boston has reached the Eastern Conference Finals in three of the last four seasons, including the last in which they came up short to the Miami Heat in six games. Coming off such another close call, the expectations around Brad Stevens’ charges is that their continued to growth will eventually see them break through, but with nearly half of the 2020-2021 campaign in the books it’s becoming rather clear that this won’t be the year in which that happens for a variety of reasons. So what’s wrong with the Celtics, you ask? Let’s take a moment to run down the list of troubles for this ailing contender… Size, depth, and injury have been the biggest issues thus far, and this dates back to the (truncated) Offseason in which they suffered some losses in Free Agency. (Former Swingman) Gordon Hayward, whose tenure in the Northeast was marred by serious injury, left for the Charlotte Hornets as an unrestricted Free Agent after waiving what would have been a very lucrative option to stay with the franchise. One of the strengths of this side over the years has been their ability to switch defensively with ease, and Hayward was a fairly large component of their success in that area. The other problem has been a noticeable lack of size, which has also been a problem for a few years now. Stevens receives solid effort out of (Center) Daniel Theis (8.8 PTS, 55.8% FG, 36.9% 3FG, 5.0 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.6 STL, 1.2 BLK, 14.3 PER), but the German international is often outmatched against larger bigs. Boston added (former Cavalier) Tristan Thompson (7.8 PTS, 53.1% FG, 8.4 REB, 0.9 AST, 15.2 PER) in Free Agency, but the 29-year old hasn’t made the impact that he was expected to. And then there is the depth, which has been dramatically reduced by the absence of (defensive stopper) Marcus Smart (13.1 PTS, 39.4% FG, 31.1% 3FG, 2.8 REB, 6.1 AST, 1.8 STL, 0.5 BLK, 14.7 PER), who continues to rehab from a strained calf muscle. Initially thought to miss just two to three weeks, the veteran Guard has missed the last fourteen games and counting, and isn’t expected to return until after the All-Star Break (March 5th-10th). The Celtics have since lost nine of fourteen games since his injury, even with their dynamic young duo of Jayson Tatum (25.6 PTS, 43.9% FG, 37.4% 3FG, 6.9 REB, 4.5 AST, 1.3 STL, 0.5 BLK, 20.6 PER) and Jaylen Brown (25.4 PTS, 49.7% FG, 38.9% 3FG, 5.5 REB, 3.9 AST, 1.2 STL, 0.5 BLK, 21.8 PER) doing everything within their power to keep them afloat. With that said, Tatum, who advanced his game more so than most during the NBA’s return in the Bubble last Summer, suffered a bout with COVD-19 and lost five games earlier in the season, though he seems to finally have put that behind him; before Wednesday’s loss in Atlanta (more on that in a bit), he had averaged 28.2 points 7.0 rebounds, and 5.2 assists during a five-game stretch. Brown on the other hand, has enjoyed the finest season of his young career, and has thus been rewarded with his first All-Star selection as a result. The 24-year old has posted career-highs in a slew of categories, including points (25.4) field goal percentage (49.7%), two-point percentage (54.8%), assists (3.9), and steals (1.2). Unfortunately, even with the firepower from those two young guns, it just hasn’t been enough; the Celtics have been one of the worst teams in the NBA in terms of performing in the Fourth Quarter, ranking in the bottom third in a number of offensive categories, which is a clear sign that they frequently find themselves running out of gas. With that said, they’ve also been on the wrong the end of some clutch shots, which have repeatedly broken the hearts of the faithful in Beantown; Boston has allowed five go-ahead field goals in the final thirty seconds of the Fourth Quarter or Overtime thus far, which is by far and away the most in the Association. Talk about unfortunate…
“It got away from us early. They played well and made a bunch of shots. But we didn’t come with it today. These are four very important games. We’ve got to dig deep and figure it out.”Jayson Tatum on the Celtics 127-112 loss in Atlanta on Wednesday night in which they were outscored 72-49 in the First Half and yielded 23 three-pointers
When we last saw the Celtics, there would be no late-game heroics from their opponent for in the end none were needed as the struggling Atlanta Hawks sent them to their third consecutive defeat via a 127-112 affair in the Dirty Dirty. It appeared that Boston were still recovering from Luka Doncic’s pair of late daggers that bested them in a 110-107 contest on Tuesday night, for they looked absolutely GASSED in this second night of a Back-to-Back. Atlanta outscored them 72-49 in the First Half, with the hosts shooting a scorching 61.9% from the field, including 13-of-21 from beyond the arc (61.9%), dishing out fifteen assists in comparison to committing just six turnovers. The visitors on the other hand could muster just 41.2% shooting themselves, including a dismal 2-of-17 from downtown (11.8%), outscored by thirty-three points in that last regard. And speaking of three-pointers, that would prove to be the most notable difference between the sides, as the hosts made a franchise-record twenty-three from deep, with Danilo Gallinari setting a record ten by himself. As strong as he had played of late, Tatum really wasn’t much of a factor in this one, finishing with just thirteen points on 4-of-20 shooting (20.0%), including 1-of-8 from three (12.5%), with only a single rebound and assist in 31:49 of action. Brown wasn’t much better with seventeen points on 6-of-16 shooting (37.5%) and 0-of-6 from long range (0.0%) before eventually just heading to the bench with the game well out of hand. (All-Star Point Guard) Kemba Walker (17.3 PTS, 37.5% FG, 34.9% 3FG, 3.6 REB, 4.3 AST, 1.1 STL, 14.8 PER), sat out this affair as the club continues to afford him some rest whenever they can; the 30-year old missed the first eleven games of the campaign following offseason knee surgery, and has been a bit slow to regain his fitness and conditioning, shooting shooting only 37.5% from the field, his lowest percentage since he entered the league a decade ago. With Smart on the mend, it’s imperative that he remain healthy, for in the four games that he has missed since returning back on January 17th, As a team, Stevens’ troops shot 44.2% from the floor, including a miserable 8-of-31 from three (25.8%), and 20-of-23 from the free-throw line (87.0%), but simply couldn’t get enough of stops to come close to slowing down the Hawks. Indeed, the All-Star Break can’t come soon enough for a team that really needs to get healthy so that they can avoid missing out on the Playoffs, which coming into the season certainly seemed far-fetched. Losers of eight of their last eleven outings, they’ve now slumped below .500 for the first time this year, and at ninth in the Eastern Conference, the alarms should be ringing loud in Boston. Maybe a trip to Indiana will help them right the ship; when they met back on December 29th, the Celtics outlasted the Pacers in a 116-111 affair in which they outscored them 33-17 in the Fourth Quarter, with Tatum scoring fourteen in the final period.