Even though 11 days remain in the regular season, a first-round playoff series between the Pacers and the Celtics is almost inevitable. So the final two regular-season meetings between these teams offer up interesting appetizers that could have value, or could just offer false hope to the winner.
At the very least, they will help provide some clarity regarding home-court advantage in that opening-round matchup, and they could also provide some hints about what these teams must tweak before then.
With a home loss Friday night, the Celtics would have most likely been resigned to the No. 5 spot, which would mean starting the playoffs on the road, which would be yet another letdown for a team that started this year with title aspirations. Instead, the Celtics grabbed a tense 114-112 win after Kyrie Irving darted to the basket for a game-winning layup with 0.5 seconds left.
Boston (45-31) has now pulled even with the Pacers for the No. 4 spot in the East, and it has also ensured that it will hold the tiebreaker if the teams end the year with the same record. If the Celtics win in Indianapolis next Friday, they would win the season series, 3-1. Even if they lose that game, though, they would have the better conference record by one game if the teams end up tied.
“It was definitely a great, kind of like pre-feel-out game if you want to call it, for the playoffs,” Irving said. “But home-court advantage was at stake, and I know we see them again one more time, so we’ll see how that goes.”
A rowdy Friday night crowd combined with some frenetic, end-to-end play made this feel like a playoff game, even if it was only a preview.
With the score tied at 112, Pacers forward Thaddeus Young missed an open layup with just 42 seconds left. But Marcus Smart, who had heaved in an off-balance 28-foot 3-pointer two minutes earlier, turned the ball over. After a timeout, Darren Collison missed a tough 18-footer, and Jaylen Brown corraled the rebound for Boston with 10.2 seconds remaining.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens elected to inbound the ball near his team’s bench rather than at midcourt, figuring it would offer more room for Irving to operate, and that it would be better if everything was on the move.
But the Pacers double-teamed Irving, who signaled for Horford to take the inbounds pass and hurry upcourt. Horford did that before looking for his All-Star point guard once again.
“We just wanted to give [Irving] space on that side of the floor,” Stevens said, “and, you know, let him be him.”
Irving took the ball beyond the right arc and faced a double-team with just four seconds left. But rather than tighten the trap on Irving, Myles Turner retreated to Horford, who stood alone at the top of the key. That allowed Irving to coast in for a mostly uncontested layup with just 0.5 seconds left.
“I saw Myles Turner about to commit to the double-team and then I just kind of gave a pass fake with my eyes and then went to the rim,” Irving said. “Thankfully, it went in.”
“Just a very, very crafty player,” Horford said of Irving.
After a timeout, Indiana’s sideline inbounds pass was tipped by Gordon Hayward, and time expired before the Pacers could get off a shot.
Irving finished with 30 points to lead the Celtics. Aron Baynes started for Boston alongside Horford once again and had 13 points and 13 rebounds in 33 minutes. The big man has battled injuries this year and had not played more than 25 minutes in any other game.
“He was very engaged, obviously on the defensive end,” Horford said of Baynes. “He makes a big difference for us. Then, when his name was called on offense, he kept making plays.”
The Celtics made 51.2 percent of their shots overall and 48.1 percent of their 3-pointers.
The Pacers have stayed afloat since All-Star guard Victor Oladipo suffered a season-ending knee injury on Jan. 23, but it has been a struggle. Indiana has now lost 10 consecutive road games, and that is probably not good news for a team that might have just ceded home court in its opening-round series.
Still, Stevens remains wary of what Indiana could be capable of in the postseason. He said the Pacers are as physical as any team in the NBA, and he pointed out how quickly they looked to punish Boston’s smaller lineups with post-ups on Friday.
“At the end of the day if we’re going to beat these guys any more than just a regular-season game at home, you’d better get them off the glass and you’d better get those loose balls that we didn’t get late,” Stevens said. “And that’s why they’re who they are. I think they’re really good.”
More photos from Friday night’s game: