INDIANAPOLIS — The Celtics’ third quarter was so predictable, so foreseeable, that there had to be a catch. There had to be some reason they again allowed the Indiana Pacers to steamroll in the second half Tuesday. It’s as if they needed to reach a low point before being shaken with a sense of urgency.
It wasn’t that the Celtics played considerably better in the final 15 minutes of the game after falling behind by 17, they played with more cohesion, desperation, and grit. They are not going to wow teams with their freakish athletes or multiple 30-point scorers. The way this roster is constructed, the Celtics are going to have to rely on their depth, hope newcomers adjust fast, and the team overall becomes more consistent.
Their stirring 116-111 win over the Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse was about as important of a win in the fourth game of the season can get. The Celtics wasted a chance to steal the first game here Sunday with a defensive breakdown and another poor final offensive possession.
On Tuesday, the Celtics watched helplessly as the Pacers began the second half on a 31-13 run, with T.J. Warren splashing easy midrange jumpers while the worst 3-point shooting team in the NBA already had 12 by the end of the third period.
The Celtics looked completely befuddled, but coach Brad Stevens stuck with his convictions and used a mostly bench lineup to spark the rally. One of the main contributors to the turnaround was rookie Payton Pritchard, who continues to gain more of Stevens’s trust with increased playing time.
He arrived in Boston an enigma. He played four years at Oregon but very few Celtics faithful was familiar with his game. But what is evident is Pritchard is hardly scared of the moment. He is fearless and relentless, such as when he threw an errant alley-oop to Tristan Thompson that resulted in an Indiana fast break with the Celtics up, 104-100, in the final five minutes.
In one of the game’s key sequences, Pritchard, all 6 feet 1 inch of him, sprinted down the floor and reached behind Victor Oladipo to knock away the ball. Robert Williams gathered the ball and fed it to Pritchard, who threw ahead to Marcus Smart, who drained a pull-up 3-pointer.
The Celtics didn’t pull off this rally strictly behind of the dominance of Jayson Tatum or a scoring surge from Jaylen Brown, they prevailed because the five players on the floor finally played as a collective unit for longer than a few minutes.
“There were several instances of real good effort,” Stevens said. “I don’t know what the lead was for them [17 points] but it sure dissipated pretty quickly and we were able to keep guarding.
“It’s a good team win. [The Pacers are] a good basketball team and we aren’t where we want to be, but sometimes you got to find a way.”
An undeniable trend in the first four games has been lackadaisical lapses in which the Celtics cough up leads, lose their poise, and look like a below-average outfit. But they are truly better than they have played so far.
In the two third quarters of this two-game set in Indiana, the Pacers shot 63.6 percent and scored 76 points. Tatum, the reigning All-Star, totaled 6 points in that span. He responded Tuesday with 14 in the fourth quarter, but he was more impressive with his sterling effort on defense, something that has not always been the case this season.
The Celtics forced seven Indiana turnovers and Pritchard helped them get into the foul bonus with 6:28 left by drawing three fouls in the period. He sparked the Celtics with his dribble penetration and setting up teammates, while Tatum and Brown attacked the rim in key possessions down the stretch to draw free throws.
“We’ve still got a lot of work ahead of us; we’ve still got a lot of growing to do,” Brown said. “[This] was a great game to win for us. We picked it up on the defensive end and pulled it out.”
When asked about Pritchard, Brown couldn’t help from smile.
“Payton is the GOAT man,” he said. “Payton came in with the confidence, definitely needed a spark coming off the bench. And Payton was everything and more for us. We’re going to need more guys to continue to step up. Excellent job from Payton Pritchard. Kid can play.”
What has to be more rewarding about this victory is that it wasn’t sparked by late-game offensive heroics or banked-in 3-pointer. The Celtics won this game early in the fourth quarter by focusing on defense and suffocating an Indiana offense that scored at will at times. They could have easily limped back to Boston 0-2 on this trip, hoping a Ja Morant-less Memphis team would be a salve for their issues.
Instead, they displayed fortitude, flipped the game on the Pacers as quickly as it had been flipped on them, and received contributions from their maligned bench to polish off a satisfying victory that at least gave them an indication they’re making progress.
“I’ve said several times we’re not where we want to be, we’re just not,” Stevens said. “We’ve got a long way to go to get as good as we need to be. We’re different than we’ve been and to win a game against a team with that kind of talent is a good step, but it’s one step.”