Boston Celtics' Kyrie Irving (11) looks to pass behind Indiana Pacers' Darren Collison during the second quarter of an NBA basketball game Friday, March 29, 2019, in Boston. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)
The Boston Celtics tip off their series against the Indiana Pacers on Sunday at 1:00 p.m. at the TD Garden (watch it live on TNT), and the Celtics — like everyone else — are excited to have reached the point of the season by which everything will actually be judged when the summer rolls around.
What experts are saying about the Celtics playoff chances
1. The Celtics are 3-1 against the Pacers this season, and their lone loss came back in November when Victor Oladipo buried a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to sink Boston in the final seconds. Oladipo, of course, went down with a ruptured quad tendon in his right knee on January 24 — a devastating injury for an excellent young player who had assumed an entertaining role as the leader of the Pacers squad.
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2. Much has been made about the way the Pacers hung on since Oladipos injury, but that was based on a stretch of games against weak opponents, after which many observers stopped paying attention while Indiana slipped significantly down the stretch.
3. Here are a few stats for evidence: Before Jan. 24, the Pacers had a net rating of 5.7. By way of comparison, the Celtics net rating since they changed the starting lineup on Nov. 24 is 4.8. Since January 24, the Pacers have a net rating of 0.2. On the road, that net rating plummets to -4.9. As it turns out, missing your best player makes a big difference.
Both teams have been solid on the defensive end of the floor with the Pacers ranking first in the league in scoring defense on the year. Boston wasn’t that far behind though as they were 8th in that department. With that in mind, the Celtics have the better offensive attack and they shoot a lot more three-pointers than the Pacers do. The interior game and how the teams handle the battle of the boards will be important in this contest. Boston took three of four in the regular season and closed the season strong: can they get the win in the opening game of this series?
4. The Pacers have not been able to do much with Kyrie Irving. Hes shooting 50 percent from the floor and 45 percent from 3-point range in four meetings with Indiana this season, and hes +12.3 — a significant jump from his +5 score overall.
5. Indianas biggest issue with Irving is similar to everyone elses: They have no real answer for him when he gets into the pick-and-roll with Bostons bigs, particularly Horford who commands attention out to the 3-point line. Indiana dropped bigs back in pick-and-roll coverage at times (which Irving abused), and they tried multiple defenders including Wes Matthews and Darren Collison (both of whom Irving abused). I genuinely dont know if Indiana has a sufficient answer for Irving to win.
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6. Marcus Smarts absence might be the biggest storyline for the Celtics entering the postseason, especially given how well he matched up with Bojan Bogdanovic. For the season, Bogdanovic averaged 18 points per game on 49.7/42.5/80.7 shooting splits. Against the Celtics, Bogdanovics numbers drop to 13.5 points per game on 43.9/36.8/61.1 shooting splits (the free throws are probably fluky). Thats largely thanks to Smart, who made him visibly uncomfortable during the meetings between these teams. The Celtics will need to find some answers.
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7. Jaylen Brown, who might very well get the start in Smarts absence, on Bogdanovic: Hes a really good player. So Im just trying to take his rhythm away and respect what he does best. Hes playing really well. This past year is probably one of the best years hes had in his NBA career. So I want to be respectful and at the same time I want to come out and be aggressive and take some of that rhythm away.
8. So who will start in Smarts place? Brown is a strong possibility. Our own John Karalis made an intriguing case for Semi Ojeleye, who brings size and defensive versatility and — perhaps most importantly — allows the Celtics to keep their rotations intact.
I think Semi is so valuable to our team,” Brad Stevens told Karalis. “And well see how it all plays itself out. Theres always something. You just have to be on your toes and everybodys gotta be ready.
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9. My case, however, would be for Gordon Hayward. Hayward — who has been excellent recently — has been a murderer with Bostons starting five. Lineups with Al Horford, Marcus Morris, Jayson Tatum, Irving and Hayward are (this is not a typo) +41.3 in 114 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. Thats a comically elite number.
But not trying to win and purposefully lose winnable games just feels antithetical to what we value watching sports. Running down the clock to hold on to a win may not be the bravest thing in the world, but it isn’t going against the very idea of what sports should be.
10. The Celtics, of course, recently replaced Morris with Aron Baynes in the starting lineup, and while the Horford, Tatum, Baynes, Irving and Hayward lineup doesnt have enough minutes together for a reasonable sample size, one can safely infer that replacing Morris with one of Bostons most devastating defensive players would still work quite well.
11. Heres Aron Baynes on Bostons opportunity to play big against Indiana: Theyre going to come out, be physical. Thats playoff basketball, and were going to have answer it. Thats what was great about it last year – we all had a taste of it and we know what to expect. Last year is going to benefit us immensely at this time. Gonna be a dog fight, but thats what its about. It will be fun.
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12. Per Cleaning the Glass, lineups with Horford at the four and Baynes at the five have a net rating of +18.3. Stevens has said repeatedly that the combination of Horford and Baynes only works against certain opponents, but the Pacers are one.
13. The Celtics also got good minutes out of Horford and Theis combinations against Indiana the last time the teams matched up.
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I think with Indiana, it makes total sense that theres going to be minutes where Horford and Theis play together, Horford and Baynes play together, right? Stevens said on Saturday. I just think you have to be big against those guys for spurts of the game at least. Theis has been really good because hes been on call. Hes like the guy that can sit the first two-and-a-half quarters, come in in the third and impact the game and play right away and impact the game. There might be a moment that Baynes gets in foul trouble and we have to play Horford and Theis more minutes together, and thats something I feel really comfortable with. They complement each other. Als ability to play inside and out gives us a great deal of flexibility to play other bigs with him.
14. In his last five games, Gordon Hayward has averaged 18.4 points on 63.5/38.5/87.5 shooting splits.
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15. Haywards last five games matter despite the tiny sample size. Hes clearly more comfortable, and he has punished both opposing bench units and starters alike with his ability to get into the paint and finish in recent weeks. In his last 15 games, Hayward has a net rating of 5.5. His (literally) perfect shooting performance against the Pacers in the final meeting between the two teams summed things up well: At the perfect time, Bostons highest-paid player has started performing like a max option.
Its the reason why I came to Boston, Hayward said on Thursday. “So I think it will be a great atmosphere for sure playing in the Garden in the playoffs. And Im really excited.
You look at it, and Im blessed, Brown said. Three years in the league, all three years making it to the playoffs and two back-to-back ECFs, so Im feeling comfortable. Im feeling experienced. But at the same time Im feeling hungry. Two years of coming up short and Ive got a void to fill so Im looking forward to this postseason.
18. Heres Irving on the start of the postseason: Im just ready to get started. Its been a long time trying to get back to this point. Its been a year in my career where Ive learned a lot about my body. Over the last year, getting two knee surgeries and a nose surgery. Really setting goals for myself, and I just have a genuine love for the game and just want to be back to this point, playing at the highest level. Stats go out the window, everything else in terms of what has happened and transpired throughout the regular season goes out the window. Its just like everything is about the true essence of basketball. Nothing else about the drama or extracurricular stuff. Im excited to be focused on the game and actually talk about basketball instead of sensationalism. Im just happy about that.
Losing Marcus Smart hurts but the Celtics have the talent to make up for it. Ultimately, though, we can cut through all the hyper-focus of the past few days and boil this series down to this: Boston has Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, the two best players in this series, and if Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown all play up to their capabilities.
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Karalis then hit the enter button accidentally on Slack, which is a rookie mistake. He continued:
Ive been low on Bostons playoff chances in the past, but the re-emergence of Gordon Hayward combined with Indianas recent struggles give me little reason to believe in the Pacers. Next year — when Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner are a year older, and Oladipo returns to the court — they could be a problem. This season, I just dont see it against the Celtics, particularly since Indiana is bad on the road.
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The Celtics playoff run starts Sunday afternoon against the Indiana Pacers, a familiar opponent from the last days of the regular season. The Celtics played the Pacers on March 29 and again on April 5 and won both games.
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Buckley noted how consistently inconsistent the Celtics have managed to play throughout this season and warned that it could only grow worse without Marcus Smart in the lineup for the first round. However, he pointed to Gordon Haywards apparent upswing in the final weeks of the regular season as a reason to believe this years Celtics team can rise closer to pre-season expectations.
The Pacers went 10-14 after the All-Star break and finally started to falter without Victor Oladipo, who was injured in late January. Buckley ultimately picked the Celtics over the Pacers in six games in round one because the Pacers will lack that star power.
A side-by-side roster comparison might lead you to believe this series would be a coin flip, if not one favoring the Shamrocks, he wrote. But conventional wisdom goes out the window with Giannis Antetokounmpo, the glitch in any defensive system.
Antetokounmpo averaged 31 points over three games played against the Celtics this year. In Buckleys opinion, that star power will overwhelm any defense, even the Celtics, which was rated within the NBAs top ten in defensive rating.
Zach Harper wrote that the Celtics should be most concerned with their lack of consistency on offense throughout the season. He cited Kyrie Irvings call-outs of his younger teammates and Marcus Morriss February comments about not having fun as evidence that the Celtics can not claim consistently night in and night out.
Celtics writer Jay King offered some comments for the piece, saying the Celtics depth should remain an advantage.
It’s unfortunate for the Celtics that the injury to Smart hurts the foundation of their roster. It could have a domino effect that forces Marcus Morris to play more minutes at the 4 than he normally would. This presents an intriguing matchup for Thad Young to exploit.
Still, this season has been so rocky the Celtics havent always even liked themselves, King wrote. To make a deep playoff run, they would need to escape the stench of a weird regular season and drop some of the maddening habits that limited them to fourth place in the East. If that doesnt happen, this team will be remembered as a disappointment.
Harper cited the pick-and-roll as something to watch during Celtics-Pacers, reporting that the Celtics are one of the NBAs best pick-and-roll offensive teams, while the Pacers excel at defending the pick-and-roll.
Indiana can slow down games and turn them into a slog, which is likely to mean some unsightly stretches of basketball as coach Nate McMillan attempts to keep things close, Deveney wrote. But this is a good matchup for Boston, a team that simply has too much talent for the shorthanded Pacers.
Sporting News noted the Pacers fall in offensive efficiency after Oladipos injury and pointed to Bojan Bogdanovic as the teams best hope against the Celtics. Even so, the Celtics remain too talented to sway a prediction in Indianas favor.
Deveney cited Aron Baynes as a key defender for the Celtics when the Pacers attempt to feed the ball inside.
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Indiana is a great story, Cowherd said on his Fox Sports radio show. But once they lost Victor Oladipo their ceiling got way lower.
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Cowherd argued that the Pacers played their way into the playoffs based on hard defense and sheer effort. Effort, he said, does not mean as much in the NBA playoffs because everybody is working harder.
The Celtics and Pacers played twice in the last days of the NBA regular season. The Celtics won both games and blew Indiana out 117-97 on April 5. Cowherd does not believe it will be close in the postseason.
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ESPN: If the Celtics are going to survive Smarts absence, it will be because [Jaylen] Brown can step into the role Smart has vacated.
ESPN.coms analysis of every playoff team hits all the notes, highlighting the teams inconsistency problems, rumors of inner turmoil, and the troubles that losing Marcus Smart through two rounds will pose. The key to overcoming those woes? Jaylen Brown. ESPN argues that Brown has been among the Celtics best players since Jan. 1, and in that time he has scored 13.7 points per game and averaged 4.3 rebounds mostly playing off the bench.
On First Take Thursday morning, analyst and former NBA player Ryan Hollins said the Celtics will upset the Bucks in the second round and that Giannis Antetokounmpo would falter late in games. When asked who on the Celtics would stop the potential league MVP, Hollins offered a simple explanation.
USA Today: Celtics beat Pacers in six or seven games, but the Bucks will prove too much in another long series.
All five USA Today writers polled picked the Celtics to beat the Pacers in the first round. Three said it would take six games. Two said it would require all seven.
In the second round? All five writers picked the Bucks to beat the Celtics. However, four of the five picked the series to go to seven games.
All four Yahoo Sports writers polled picked the Celtics to knock the Pacers out in the first round. Three of those four writers said they will lose to the Bucks in round two. Three of four predict the series will go the distance.