The Celtics trailed the Pacers by 17 points with less than three minutes left in the third quarter Tuesday night. A lead that big can vanish in an instant in the NBA, but the Celtics had done little to make it seem like this one would.
Their offense had no rhythm, and their defense was once again allowing an opponent to gash them from all angles.
But sparked by Jayson Tatum, who has been through plenty of NBA comebacks, and rookie Payton Pritchard, who has not, the Celtics went on a 38-12 run and ultimately grabbed a 116-111 win in Indianapolis.
“We played with a little bit of desperation since we were down 17,” Celtics forward Jaylen Brown said, “and didn’t want to go out like that.”
Tatum scored 17 of his 27 points in the second half and had 11 rebounds. Pritchard had 10 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists off the bench, and Brown scored 20 points.
The Celtics pulled within 94-83 at the start of the fourth. After a Tatum runner and Javonte Green alley-oop, Pritchard drove for consecutive layups, the second a 3-point play that was part of the 11-0 run that tied the score at 94.
Pritchard turned the ball over with Boston leading, 104-100, midway through the quarter, but then chased down Victor Oladipo and stole the ball back, leading to a Marcus Smart 3-pointer.
The Celtics led by as many as 9 points before the Pacers made a final push and pulled within 111-109. They had the ball with 43 seconds left, a good chance to get two possessions without needing to foul, but they took too long to get into their offense.
Then after a timeout, Brown broke up a handoff at the top of the key and surged in for a layup to all but seal it.
Observations from the game:
▪ The common thread of coach Brad Stevens’s news conferences, after wins and losses and practices, has been this: The Celtics still have a long way to go. Certainly, Kemba Walker’s eventual return will accelerate the process, but it’s clear these next few weeks will be filled with trials and errors, and a hope to find something that clicks consistently.
“We’re figuring out some things that we think might work for our team, and will have to experiment along the way,” Stevens said. “We’re different than we’ve been. And to win this game against a team with that kind of talent that’s that good, after dropping a close one the other day, is a good step, but it’s one step.”
▪ Tatum faced constant traps out of pick-and-rolls in the first half, and he should get accustomed to this approach. He didn’t handle the extra attention particularly well at first. He threw the ball away on one possession, then got stuck and was forced to throw it off of Domantas Sabonis on another, and then he stepped out of bounds later in the opening quarter.
It was less of an issue in the second half, though, and Tatum said the key was playing off the ball more and looking for open teammates before double teams arrived.
“I feel like we’ve got too good of a team for that to happen,” he said. “But if they’re going to do it, make the right play, get other guys open shots. That’s what we were doing.”
▪ The Pacers shot 51.2 percent from the field, so the Celtics have let all four opponents shoot 50 percent or better this season. But maybe Boston can build on the second half of Tuesday’s game. The Pacers shot 56.1 percent overall and 47.4 percent on 3-pointers in the first half, and then made 46.5 percent of their shots and 21.4 percent of their 3-pointers after the break.
“I just thought we got a little bit more back to the way we need to play defensively,” Stevens said. “More reacting to the threat, more handsy, more aggressive on the ball, all the stuff that when we’re good, we’re doing well.”
In the fourth quarter the Pacers missed all six of their 3-pointers and committed seven turnovers.
“We’re an organization and a team that wants to hang our hat on the defensive side of the floor,” Brown said, “and the fourth quarter I felt like we did a pretty good job and did enough to win.”
▪ It appears that Pritchard’s hot start is no fluke. Stevens once again showed great trust in him in key situations, including having him on the floor for all but 1 minute, 40 seconds of the fourth quarter, as the Celtics mounted their comeback.
Yes, he is two months older than Tatum, but he was drafted a little more than one month ago and was whisked through an accelerated preseason with much less preparation than rookies usually receive. It hasn’t mattered. Pritchard already has good command of Boston’s pick-and-roll offense and showed it Tuesday.
“He’s poised off that stuff,” Stevens said. “He makes the right play, he’s deceptive so he can get in and use his body to finish as we saw on a couple of occasions. He’s a guy that knows how to play. We’re awfully small when he’s in there at times late with that group, but I thought he did a good job on both ends tonight.”
Pritchard, whose two big fourth-quarter layups were central to the comeback, said he is already getting more comfortable finding different angles to attack on plays like those.
“It’s my fourth game,” he said. “So everything’s coming at me fast.”
▪ It won’t show up on the stat sheet, but Pritchard drew three fouls in four possessions during the fourth-quarter run, helping Boston enter the free throw penalty for the game’s final eight minutes. The Celtics took 16 free throws in the fourth and 37 in the game. They attempted more than 37 free throws just twice last season, including the playoffs.
▪ Tristan Thompson gave the Celtics a jolt in the first quarter. He scored on a lob on Boston’s first possession and then contributed in several ways, from completing a nice give-and-go with Daniel Theis to battling to keep Sabonis in front of him in the post. He finished the first quarter with 8 points, 7 rebounds, and 1 assist.
▪ Brown has been the Celtics’ best player so far. He has appeared under control and comfortable in so many situations, from working the pick-and-roll offense to attacking and making the proper play once he gets to the rim, whether finishing or finding an open man. At earlier points in Brown’s career, it sometimes looked like his body couldn’t keep up with what his head wanted him to do. Now, he’s playing at his own pace.