When the Pacers lost to the Nets on Sunday, the Celtics locked up homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Indiana’s game ended before Boston’s matchup against the Magic began, but Celtics coach Brad Stevens said he would continue on with his regular rotation and do what he could to win anyway.
The team hoped to build on the rhythm it had developed while winning five of its last six games, and also escape the night healthy. But the Celtics were not especially successful on either front.
A fourth-quarter comeback from a 14-point deficit was not enough in a 116-108 setback to the Magic, guaranteeing the Celtics the No. 4 seed in the East and a matchup against the Pacers in the opening round of the playoffs. The setback proved particularly painful to starters Jayson Tatum (left shin contusion) and Marcus Smart (oblique bruise), who both left the game with their injuries.
Tatum’s injury had actually occurred at some point prior to the game, and Stevens said he was unaware of it. But Tatum told the team’s training staff that he felt “a little off” when he jumped, so he left in the first quarter and did not return.
“Hopefully it’s nothing major,” Stevens said. “But he’ll get checked tonight and tomorrow and we’ll go from there.”
Smart’s injury appeared to be more worrisome. With less than seven minutes left in the third quarter, Smart collided with Magic center Nikola Vucevic going for a steal. Smart fell to the ground and appeared hurt, but got back up and went to the bench during a timeout.
He stayed in the game, and once play resumed, the pain appeared to worsen. Smart jogged gingerly upcourt before signaling that he needed to be replaced. Then he collapsed to the floor and was writhing.
He signaled for medical attention and was helped off the court by a member of the team’s medical staff, wincing and holding his left side as he walked.
Given the fact that this game was mostly meaningless, it seemed to be an unusual decision for Smart to re-enter the game after suffering the initial injury. But Stevens said that Smart had insisted to team trainer Art Horne that he was fine. Stevens said that when the injury worsened moments later, Smart felt like the oblique was having spasms.
“He was a little sore [after the game], but was walking around [in the locker room], which was good,” Stevens said. “So, obviously, glad we got out of here without anything else after that.”
Neither Smart nor Tatum was available for interviews after the loss.
The good news for the Celtics is that their opening-round playoff series against Indiana is still a week away from starting. They will face the Wizards in Washington on Tuesday, and Stevens made it clear that the team’s regular rotation players will be used minimally, if at all.
“Any days of rest are great,” point guard Kyrie Irivng said. “They’re always peaceful, but we know what we’re doing that for. The preparation starts now.”
The Celtics won the season series against the Pacers, 3-1, including two victories in the last 10 days. Indiana has not been the same team since All-Star guard Victor Oladipo suffered a season-ending leg injury on Jan. 23. The Pacers are just 15-19 since then, and their +0.1 net rating is the worst of any playoff team other than the Nets over that span.
Still, the Celtics will proceed with caution, because this season has not exactly gone as planned for them, either. Sunday’s loss ensured that they will fall short of the 50-win mark for the first time since winning 48 in 2015-16.
“It’s going to be an extremely tough series,” Stevens said. “It’s going to be an extremely physical series.”
Based on the standings, both teams have known for a while that they would likely be facing each other in the first round. They were mostly tussling for homecourt advantage, and Boston has now claimed that.
Kyrie Irving has insisted throughout the ups and downs of this season that the Celtics would find a way to be at their best when the playoffs start. Now, there is even more clarity about what that road will look like.
“Don’t let the pressure of the moment get the best of you,” Irving said, “and just go out there and hoop.”
Irving had 23 points to lead the Celtics on Sunday. Vucevic had 25 points and 12 rebounds for the Magic, who clinched their first playoff berth since 2011-12 with the win.
“The guys were ecstatic, deserving, and it was fun to see,” Magic coach Steve Clifford said afterward. “I feel like we’ve done it the right way.
“We’ve played our best the last 30-31 games. We’ve made good progress all year.”
The Celtics led, 65-64, when Smart was injured, but they were never able to extend their advantage.
The Magic took an 83-78 lead to the fourth period, and then Terrence Ross scored 11 points over the first 2:09, helping Orlando to a 94-80 lead.
Despite the deficit and their injuries, the Celtics were not ready to cede anything.
Back-to-back 3-pointers by Jaylen Brown, who returned after missing three games with back spasms, ignited a Celtics comeback. And with less than five minutes left Irving scored 9 points over a two-minute stretch, ending with a 3-pointer that tied the score at 106.
But the Magic responded with a 6-0 run that included a pair of missed 3-pointers by Celtics backup center Daniel Theis, and its lead was not in danger again.