So the Celtics couldn’t help but notice that three higher seeds lost at home Saturday, a reminder that these playoffs are indeed a new season. Underdogs have plenty of time to prepare for one opponent. There are no back-to-backs and Game 1s are the easiest for a lower seed to win.
So considering they played in the opener of the Sunday quartet of playoff games, the Celtics had every reason to fall into the same trap. And they almost did, trailing by as many as 11 points to the Indiana Pacers in the opener of their Eastern Conference first-round series at TD Garden.
Yet, they maintained the fortitude and toughness that has failed so much this season. They opened the second half with an 11-0 run and then cruised to an 84-74 win, turning the Pacers into an inept offensive team.
The Pacers missed 17 of 19 shots in the third quarter — a dubious and rather difficult feat — to restore order for the Celtics, who played with the expected playoff-opening jitters but never allowed the game to get out of control.
The key was the beginning of the third quarter, which was the Celtics’ worst period during the regular season. They weren’t sparkling offensively but they didn’t have to be. They scored when they needed to. They were efficient enough, even though the Celtics won despite shooting 36.4 percent.
The Pacers have trouble scoring. They don’t have one reliable scorer but rather share the wealth. And the Celtics responded by placing defensive pressure on their primary offensive threats, and it worked to perfection. Bojan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison, and Domantas Sabonis took what was offered — open midrange shots — and missed.
The trio was a combined 10-for-31 shooting, leaving the scoring onus to players not accustomed to that role such as backup point guard Cory Joseph, who led Indiana with 14 points.
The Celtics showed maturity. They won ugly. They realized that playoff basketball is not beautiful but it’s about surviving and advancing, not allowing the underdog opponent too much confidence, such as Toronto and Philadelphia did against Orlando and Brooklyn, respectively.
“I think it’s important not to put so much pressure on just that first game,” guard Kyrie Irving said. “Everyone loves to start making their predictions after a Game 1 breakdown but when you look back and see some of the mistakes, some of the things you can correct going forward, I think that can really make a huge impact for the players in the locker room. We know that those [opposing] teams are going to come out and play; they’re going for it.
“ ‘Steal one,’ that’s always an away team’s dream. But as a home team you have a lot of pressure to go out there and perform. It’s always a level up that you expect yourself to go to.”
This wasn’t exactly “flipping the switch,” but the Celtics did play at a different, engaged level from opening tip. They dealt with adversity, a rash of early turnovers, poor-shooting first halves from Irving, Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, and Terry Rozier, and 13 missed 3-pointers, and a 7-point deficit at the break.
The Celtics responded with a 22-3 run to begin the second half, easing the jitters at TD Garden and giving Boston the needed boost to finish off an opponent it very well should. The Pacers aren’t the same team without injured All-Star Victor Oladipo and they spent the first half mucking up the game, getting some unexpected offense from Joseph and a pair of early threes from Wesley Matthews.
Matthews didn’t score again after 8 points in the first 6:14 and Joseph, who did not lead Indiana in scoring once during the regular season, was its leading scorer.
Things turned in the Celtics’ favor, eventually.
“We were really connected; we were really playing hard and we were really flying around,” coach Brad Stevens said. “That doesn’t mean you always get stops and there’s probably some bounces that didn’t go their way. It’s tough, those guys are tough and physical and for us to say we were just tight, and we missed shots would not be fair to them. I thought that they were tremendous defensively and they did some things a little differently than they had in the last two games in a lot of ways. We missed some open looks in the first half, but there were also times where we didn’t own our space and they were very physical with us.”
The good news for the Celtics is they won playing Indiana’s game. They won despite not scoring for the final 3:34 of the game with two turnovers. But they had already built up enough equity for some expected slippage. They were able to win without stellar offensive outings from Irving or Horford or even Gordon Hayward. They won without being extraordinary and they played well enough and were aware enough of the situation of their fellow Eastern Conference higher seeds not to get caught underestimating the opponent.
“We understand the position that we’re in,” Irving said. “There’s no time to really [dwell] on the mistakes that happened in the first half. At this point, it’s just what’s the next thing we can impact the game? What’s the next thing that we gotta do to be more locked in? When you have that type of mentality, then it’s no time to be fixated on all the mistakes. So it’s been positive.
“To be in a dogfight like that, did we score 90 points? No. I’ve been in a few playoff games, that’s where the really gritty individuals make their mark. The focus level on the game plan really comes to an ultimate level we depend on each other that much more.”