INDIANAPOLIS — The Celtics knew the Indiana Pacers would push the pace, launch threes, and attack the rim Monday. Coach Rick Carlisle has abandoned the defense-first style he had in Detroit and Dallas for a Jerry Glanville run-n-shoot, and it’s been working.
Despite the chatter entering this In-Season Tournament quarterfinal about being completely prepared for the Pacers’ arsenal, the Celtics really weren’t. They committed silly turnovers. They got nothing from their bench other than Sam Hauser. Jayson Tatum had his moments, but was outshone on the big stage by Tyrese Haliburton.
And in the end, it was the Pacers running up the score, as Buddy Hield drained a 3-pointer at the buzzer in an already-decided game. The Celtics were taught a lesson about the importance of poise and composure at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in a humbling 122-112 loss.
Indiana advances to the semifinals in Las Vegas, while the heavily favored Celtics go home and resume their regular season Friday.
The Celtics were flawed, but played their pace in the first half. Then the typical third-quarter meltdown began, with Al Horford mishandling an alley-oop on the first possession and a Derrick White bad pass on the second. Haliburton, a rising star with Stephen Curry 3-point range, pulled up for a 30-footer and then added a layup. The Celtics couldn’t contain him the rest of the way.
Indiana leads the NBA in scoring, but it’s also near last in defense. The Celtics’ top-10 offense responded by missing 29 3-pointers and committing 18 turnovers. Meanwhile, the Pacers made the Celtics pay for every defensive mistake, and the presence of Haliburton punctured their defense.
After hitting a couple of moonshots, he followed by diving into the paint, drawing two defenders, and then passing out to open 3-point shooters. His teammates didn’t miss much. The Pacers other than Haliburton were 14 for 29 from the 3-point line. The Celtics had no answer because they couldn’t match the 3-point output and then made porous decisions with passes.
The Celtics are too veteran of a team to fall for the Pacers’ bait. They looked disheveled and disorganized in the third quarter, and coach Joe Mazzulla didn’t help by playing some bizarre rotations that struggled offensively when points were at a premium.
“We just had a bad night taking care of the ball,” forward Jaylen Brown said. “And they got it going. They put a lot of pressure on us [in the third quarter] and that group, we just couldn’t get organized. We had some turnovers, some bad shots that turned into transition points for them.
“We got caught up in the rat race and we should have just settled down a little bit, and we didn’t in that third quarter and that was the game.”
Yet, the Celtics should have expected this, right? They should be more poised than this. It’s one thing for Haliburton to turn into Steph in the second half, and it’s another to counter with porous offense, bad ball movement, and nonexistent paint defense.
The Celtics still have some serious growing to do if they’re going to compete for a championship, and this was exposed in this playoff-type atmosphere.
“It’s a combination of poise from our guys, getting to our spacing. Sometimes in those environments, like a playoff environment, you gotta remain poised and stick to the game plan,” Brown said. “We took ill-advised shots. We didn’t get to the right spots. That’s on our veteran guys to make sure we’re in the right position and we’re poised. Make sure we keep control of the game.”
When the Pacers started hitting threes and the Celtics reacted, Indiana began attacking the rim with drives, including former Celtics first-round pick Aaron Nesmith, who scored 11 of his 14 points in the fourth quarter.
It again exposed the Celtics’ lack of a rim protector when Kristaps Porzingis is out. Mazzulla alternated Horford, who didn’t play with much force, and Luke Kornet, who had his moments but didn’t prevent the Pacers from gashing them with key paint points.
Monday definitely showed how much they need a healthy Porzingis, because he can prevent some of those drives. And Mazzulla didn’t give Neemias Queta a shot to improve the interior defense, which was needed in the second half.
It was Brown who was relegated to contest Haliburton when he launched a 27-footer, game tied at 105, with 1 minute, 33 seconds left. Horford was not supposed to switch to Hield but did, leaving Brown to lunge at Haliburton, who buried the shot and got fouled. It changed the game.
“We’ve got to recognize who’s on the floor,” Brown said. “I think altogether we can all be better, from us who’s on the floor, coaching staff, just to be alert and [on the same page]. Certain groups play with different styles and we need to be aware of that.”
So what we’ve learned is the Celtics have a lot of growing, developing, and even maturing to do one-fourth into the season. They still have the league’s best record, but damn sure wanted to go to Vegas. They blew their chance because they lost composure and were lured into a style they aren’t very good at.
“Any time you get knocked out of a situation, it stings a bit,” guard Jrue Holiday said. “I guess we know the expectations and we know how people see us. We’re the No. 1 team in the league and everyone wants to beat us. But I still think we’re figuring stuff out and we can get better.”