As the Celtics stumbled through a frustrating and puzzling regular season, they always knew there would be a time when their ugly losses would be washed away and they would be able to start over. They always knew the playoffs would come.
There were no guarantees that they would be able to redeem themselves, but at least they would have a chance.
And that quest, the quest many of these players have been awaiting for months, finally began on Sunday. The bad news was that Boston opened the playoffs by having both its worst shooting game and its lowest scoring total of this season. But the good news was that it resulted in a somewhat comfortable 84-74 win over the Pacers in which an 11-point deficit flipped into a 22-point lead.
The offenses were not artful and the shots will not fill up many highlight reels. In fact, the scoring total was so low that Kyrie Irving was not even certain of it afterward. But he and his teammates believe there is some value in winning ugly, both now and moving forward.
“To be in a dogfight like that and — I don’t know, did we score 90 points?” Irving said. “No. I’ve been on a few playoff games where I’ve been on both ends, but that’s where the really gritty individuals make their mark.”
Coach Brad Stevens was encouraged by that grit, especially during a dominant third quarter in which the Pacers made just 2 of 19 shots, committed five turnovers and scored 8 points.
With 3 minutes, 28 seconds left in the third, Pacers guard Cory Joseph drove to the basket and Al Horford was whistled for goaltending as he knocked the ball away. That field goal, nearly nine minutes into the second half, was the Pacers’ first of the quarter, and it was somewhat telling that the ball did not even go through the hoop.
The players on Boston’s bench spent much of the second half standing, clapping, and roaring as the defense rattled Indiana from all angles.
“Best combination for our team,” Stevens said. “It was hard, it wasn’t pretty, things went against us . . . You’ve got to stay together and you’ve got to grind it out.”
Boston won easily despite shooting a season-low 36.4 percent and committing 20 turnovers. The Celtics had been 0-9 this season when scoring less than 100 points, but now they can add a 10-point victory to that list.
Irving and Marcus Morris led the Celtics with 20 points apiece, but this game will not really be remembered for its offense. It is ironic, or perhaps just encouraging, that perhaps the Celtics’ finest defensive effort of this year came with its best defensive player, Marcus Smart, sidelined with an oblique injury.
The Pacers made 33.3 percent of their shots, 22.2 percent of their 3-pointers, and 57.1 percent of their free throws. Game 2 will be played at TD Garden on Wednesday, and both teams hope to find more offense before then. But the Pacers’ search is obviously going to be more urgent.
Joseph had 14 points off the bench to lead Indiana. Yes, Boston’s defense played a substantial role in the shutdown, but the Pacers’ own inadequacies were quite visible.
They are the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference, but their talent level at this moment does not match that position. Indiana has been average at best since Victor Oladipo suffered a season-ending injury in late-January, and on Sunday the lack of offensive firepower was apparent. Nevertheless, Stevens remains wary of Indiana’s physical, bruising approach. These Celtics are not very familiar playing in games that resemble mud fights.
“This is not a series for the timid,” Stevens said, “and we’ve known that going in.”
The crowd’s playoff energy was palpable at the start, but the Celtics did little to ride it, as they committed five turnovers before the first quarter reached the midway point.
Morris kept the Celtics afloat during their slow start to this season, but his downturn since then had been pronounced. In the first half on Sunday, he showed a glimpse of the player he was earlier this year, hitting threes and attacking and drawing fouls. Morris came off the bench and scored 10 of Boston’s first 18 points, helping it erase an early 8-point deficit and tie the score at 20.
Back-to-back 3-pointers by Tyreke Evans and Joseph early in the second quarter helped Indiana stretch its lead, and after Irving was whistled for a five-second violation on an inbounds, Bojan Bogdanovic completed a 3-point play and Darren Collison made a layup off a steal, making it 36-25.
The Celtics made just 32.5 percent of their shots in the first half and committed 10 turnovers, so they actually might have felt encouraged to be down just 45-38 at the break.
Boston then took control with a somewhat methodical 11-0 run to start the third quarter, as its own sleepy offense was boosted by a swarming defense.
“We were really connected,” Stevens said. “We were really playing hard. We were really flying around.”
The Pacers also helped by thudding plenty of open looks off the rim, even free throws. They finally saw the ball go through the net when Doug McDermott converted a 3-point play with 1:27 left in the third, and then he missed the ensuing free throw anyway.
A 3-point heave by Terry Rozier just before the buzzer sent the Celtics to the fourth with a 64-53 lead, and then Indiana started that quarter with another lengthy scoring drought, this one nearly three minutes. The Pacers were not a factor again.
“I mean, 84-74,” Al Horford said. “That’s old-school right there.”
More photos from Sunday’s win: