BOSTON — Unlike the two higher-seeded Eastern Conference teams that began their playoff campaigns Saturday, the Boston Celtics started theirs with a victory Sunday afternoon.
But after an up-and-down regular season that often felt like an underwhelming, extended prelude to the playoffs, things didn’t feel much different in the postseason.
Yes, the Celtics beat the Indiana Pacers on Sunday, winning 84-74 in a game that was perhaps the closest thing to a rock fight that a professional basketball game has been in years. But it is going to take more than one middling performance against an overmatched opponent to prove that Boston is going to be a serious threat to emerge from the East — especially with Marcus Smart out of the picture for the foreseeable future.
“It was hard,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “It wasn’t pretty … you’ve got to stay together, and you’ve got to grind it out.”
The Celtics, to their credit, did that. Much of the ugliness of the game was a credit to the Pacers, who can make this series competitive only by making it as ugly as possible.
And, boy, was this game ugly.
Boston finished the game shooting 36.7 percent from the field, with 20 turnovers. Over the past 35 years, teams that shot that poorly and committed that many turnovers had gone a combined 3-19 in playoff games before Sunday.
This shouldn’t surprise anyone; it’s hard to imagine any team thinking it can make less than 40 percent of its shots and commit 20 turnovers and still win. That the Celtics were able to only underscores how abominable the Pacers were in the second half, particularly in the third quarter.
“I think what we were doing out there today was good for us,” Pacers forward Thaddeus Young said. “We just didn’t make shots in that third quarter. That third quarter was huge for them. If you add up all the other quarters, we win. But that third quarter really killed us.”
Young’s statement was as obvious as declaring that the earth is round or the sky is blue. The Celtics outscored the Pacers 26-8 in the third, as Indiana missed its first 11 shots, committed five turnovers and didn’t get credit for a field goal until the 3:28 mark of the period — and that came on a goaltending call.
Much was made after the game about Boston’s defense in the second half as a whole — especially that third quarter — after Indiana forgot how to score. In truth, though, the Pacers’ issues were as much their own doing as anything the Celtics did.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Pacers shot 13-for-20 from the field (and 3-for-7 from 3-point range) on uncontested shots in the first half. Not surprisingly, the second-half numbers — 3-for-18 from the field and 0-for-8 from 3-point range — were far, far worse.
“In the third quarter, we started off with two turnovers,” Pacers coach Nate McMillan said. “Then we had open looks that we didn’t knock down, and I thought we lost a little confidence.
“They got the momentum and never let that go.”
As the first half wore on, there were plenty of people inside TD Garden wondering if the Celtics would find a way to generate momentum. The absence of Smart, who is out for several more weeks because of an oblique injury, loomed large; the Celtics, playing without one of the league’s best perimeter defenders and one of its most fiery competitors, looked a step slow and oddly disengaged.
Perhaps it was as simple as the 1 p.m. ET start time. Perhaps it was Indiana’s defense, which — especially when Young was on the court — lived up to its reputation as one of the league’s best units.
But the truth is that this version of Indiana — the one without star guard Victor Oladipo, out for the season because of a torn quad tendon suffered Jan. 29 — shouldn’t be good enough to beat the Celtics or, frankly, make this a long series. Since the All-Star break, Indiana is 10-15 — the worst record of any playoff team in either conference.
As the Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers learned the hard way Saturday, the Orlando Magic and Brooklyn Nets both entered the playoffs playing at a higher level than Indiana. The results this weekend certainly confirmed that.
What happens now? Boston’s improved energy and play in the second half are positive signs for the Celtics. When asked about his team after the game, Kyrie Irving said that ability to move on to the next thing, and not dwell on the past, was his biggest takeaway.
“We just had to turn that page,” he said. “It’s the next-play mentality. We weren’t sure, or we weren’t doing the right things, but it’s a series. So we come out, any time in the game, runs can happen. Anyone can come in and make an impact, and it just doesn’t have to be on the offensive end. Defensively, we all can be in the right spots for each other and really impact and manage the game the way we want to and control the pace.
“We know how physical they’re going to be. We know that they’re going to reach down, they’re going to slap down. They have incredible defenders on their team. They use their length very well. They control the paint. And those guys are very communicative. So we’ve just got to do the right things.
“But getting all those jitters out for the first game, I’m always happy just to get the feel-out game out of the way. … Now you can really see where you can improve and where you can take advantage of weak spots.”
While Boston’s task for at least the next week will be focusing on and trying to take advantage of Indiana’s weak spots, what the Celtics need to be doing — at least to have the deep playoff run they believe they are capable of — is shoring up their own. Barring some extremely unforeseen events, once the Celtics make it past Indiana, they will face the Milwaukee Bucks, who have the NBA’s best record, best point differential and, most importantly, Giannis Antetokounmpo, the league’s best and most valuable player.
To beat the Bucks — and, ultimately, make it out of the East — Boston will need to be far better than it was Sunday.
But given how things started in Toronto and Philadelphia this weekend, the Celtics will take a win and a lead over the alternative.