INDIANAPOLIS — There is confidence, yet there is wariness for the Celtics as they enter Game 3 of their Eastern Conference first-round series with the Indiana Pacers. And the Celtics should proceed with caution to their next playoff destination.
Boston plays the next two games away from TD Garden, in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, one of the more raucous arenas in the NBA. And the Celtics have not only been an average road team during the regular season, but a poor team away from Boston during Brad Stevens’s postseason era.
The Celtics are 5-16 on the road during the postseason since Stevens took over as coach in 2013. And three of those wins were over the eighth-seeded Chicago Bulls in 2016-17 after they lost the first two games of that series at home.
Since those wins at United Center, the Celtics are 2-11 on the road in the playoffs, losing four times to the LeBron James Cavaliers, three times at Milwaukee, three times against Washington, and once at Philadelphia.
Their lone wins came at Cleveland when Marcus Smart hit seven 3-pointers for the Isaiah Thomas-less Celtics in May 2017, and last year at Philadelphia, when Al Horford’s late basket helped the Celtics claim a 3-0 series lead.
To be considered an elite team, the Celtics have to become a more consistent and dominant team on the road. They know that. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this just concluded topsy-turvy season was the Celtics’ 21-20 road record.
In 2017-18, without Gordon Hayward and with Kyrie Irving missing the final month, the Celtics were 27-14 on the road, better than their record at TD Garden. Winning on the road in the playoffs is a sign of a great team, especially in circumstances such as Game 3, when the Pacers will be playing with their season on the line and their home crowd reacting accordingly.
As much as Irving was impressed with the Celtics’ late rally in their 99-91 Game 2 win, he made it clear he wants to see the same intensity and attention to detail when the environment isn’t so comfortable.
“We’ve shown and the guys on this team have shown they can win at home,” Irving said after his 37-point performance in Game 2. “And now it’s about going on the road and doing the same thing, playing with an intensity that’s needed to get a big-time win on the road. That’s where the big test comes.”
Irving won one of the tougher road games in NBA playoff history, helping lead the Cavaliers to a Game 7 NBA Finals victory over the heavily favored Warriors at Oracle Arena in 2016. This will be Irving’s first playoff road game with the Celtics and he understands the atmosphere will be dramatically different, from the crowd to the smaller amount of family members at the game to perhaps the officials’ calls.
“Here we got our families. We got everybody here, supporting us, rooting us on,” he said. “And when we go to Indiana it’s a total opposite, where it’s just us in the trenches, where we’re out there and we’ve really got to focus in. I’m looking forward to that challenge for us and then I’ll probably have a better answer for you [about playing well in the playoffs]. Playing at home is a little bit easier.”
Stevens knows the series hasn’t been won and the Celtics have much work to do to finish off an Indiana team that is offensively challenged but defends well and should be better at home. The Celtics led Milwaukee, Washington and Cleveland, 2-0, in their series the past two seasons and were outscored by a combined 81 points in their road Game 3s. (Coincidentally, the Celtics allowed 116 points in all three of those losses).
“We’ve been up, 2-0, heading to Washington two years ago, heading to Milwaukee last year, heading to Philly last year, heading to Cleveland — and in three of those games we got our doors blown off in the first six minutes of the game,” Stevens said. “So, it’s a different . . . every game’s its own entity; you don’t think about how good you played or how lucky you were or anything else; you try to get it done. You move on to what’s next and play the next possession and it’s hard. We have to be ready for what’s coming in Game 3.”
What needs to happen for the Celtics to win Game 3; They will have to withstand Indiana’s early onslaught and avoid falling behind by an insurmountable margin. Someone else besides Irving will have to score successfully, putting the onus on Horford, Jaylen Brown, Hayward, and Jayson Tatum to help carry the offense.
And Indiana’s role players, who have been so putrid through two games (Doug McDermott, 2 for 10; Domantas Sabonis, 3 for 10; Wesley Matthews, 5 for 16; Myles Turner, 5 for 13) will almost certainly feel more comfortable with the home rims and friendly environment.
It would take great fortitude for the Celtics to stay close and steal a win in the fourth quarter as they did last season at Philadelphia. And this current Celtics team has lacked that fortitude during the regular season. But it’s the playoffs. The Celtics want to think they’re a different team now. Friday, they’ll have a chance to prove that under adverse circumstances.
“It’s going to be a grind-it-out series; Indiana’s a tough team,” Brown said. “A lot of hard-nosed tough guys. We’re going to have to match their intensity. What we have here at home, we have to take it to Indiana and match it on their home floor because they’re probably going to ramp it up having their crowd behind them. We gotta ramp it up too.”