INDIANAPOLIS — About a half-hour after the Celtics’ 104-96 Game 3 win over the Pacers was complete on Friday, Kyrie Irving finished getting dressed at his locker and was being summoned to the interview room down the hall for his press conference.
But he did not want to go alone. He asked where Jaylen Brown had gone, and then when he spotted him in an adjacent room, he smiled and called out to him.
“Hey, young king,” Irving said. “You ready?”
And then the All-Star and the 22-year-old who would someday like to become one walked down the hall together.
This Celtics campaign has been bumpy. In the regular season the team fell far short of expectations, and the losses were frequently pocked by outward frustrations with one another. All along, though, there was a hope that this would become a cohesive unit before it was too late.
And although the Pacers are undermanned and, quite frankly, overmatched, the start of this series could not have gone much better than this for the Celtics, who suddenly appear in lockstep, both on the court and off.
“Now that the stakes are at their highest, the pressure or whatever you want to call it, I feel like we’re settling into who we really want to be,” Irving said, “and that’s just an overall great team. Everyone’s ready to play, and it could be anyone’s night, and you’ve just got to be ready to support that.”
The Celtics now hold a commanding 3-0 lead in this best-of-seven series and will have a chance to complete the sweep here on Sunday afternoon. Once Friday’s game ended, Irving, who has played in the NBA Finals in three of the last four seasons, marched into the locker room and told his teammates that closing out this series in Indiana will be the most difficult task yet.
But even with a slip-up, Boston appears to be on an inexorable path to the conference semifinals. Although these games have had tense moments, the truth is that Boston is now 6-1 against the Pacers this season, with the lone loss coming when the now-injured All-Star Victor Oladipo was still on the court.
“As long as we’re locked in and communicative at both ends of the floor, having some fun, playing hard,” Irving said, “we’ll be OK.”
For the Celtics, this victory was significant because it came away from home. Even as they stormed to the brink of the NBA Finals last season, they went just 1-7 on the road. Barring some colossal upsets, they will not have home-court advantage again in these playoffs.
But they will worry about that issue when it arrives, of course. On Friday, they surged to an early 15-point lead with some unbelievably hot shooting, coughed all of it up, and then refocused when they needed to.
Brown made 8 of 9 shots, 4 of 5 3-pointers and finished with 23 points. Irving made just 7 of 19 shots but finished with 19 points and 10 assists, and had a key role as Boston closed out the win in the final minutes.
The Pacers made 54.8 percent of their shots in the first half but converted just 28.2 percent in the second, as their offense was once again exposed as perhaps the worst of any team in these playoffs.
For Indiana, this series has been defined by massive scoring droughts that revealed their startling lack of firepower. And another one hit in the third quarter, when they somehow went 5 minutes, 37 seconds without scoring a point.
Despite their continued struggles down the stretch, the Pacers — at least outwardly — remain confident that they can push back before it is too late. On the one hand, they have battled, but on the other, each game has ended with them wilting.
“We still feel it’s still a series,” point guard Darren Collison said. “I know it sounds foolish from the outside looking in, being down, 3-0, but from a mental standpoint in this locker room, there won’t be any quit.”
The Celtics started the game by making 8 of 10 3-pointers and surging to a 41-28 advantage after a quarter. Big early leads always make coach Brad Stevens uncomfortable, though, and this case was no different.
“We made a bunch of shots and felt better about ourselves than we were probably playing in the first quarter,” he said.
Sure enough, Indiana clawed back in the second quarter with a 12-0 run and took a 61-59 lead to halftime.
After scoring 41 points in the first quarter, Boston was held to just 18 in the second. The Celtics trailed at the half despite shooting 55 percent overall and 64.7 percent on 3-pointers.
When Myles Turner started the third quarter with a 3-pointer that stretched his team’s lead to 64-59, it looked like Indiana’s hot shooting might carry over. But it did not. Their scoring drought of nearly six minutes began then.
The Celtics did little to take advantage at first, but they closed the quarter with a 6-0 burst that gave them an 80-73 lead at the start of the fourth. The Pacers closed within 91-89 with just over five minutes left and had a chance to tie or take the lead.
But Irving, who’d had a quiet offensive game by his standards to that point, made perhaps the game’s defining defensive play, ripping the ball from Bojan Bogdanovic before gliding to the right side, hanging in the air, and sinking a 12-footer over Domantas Sabonis. He drove and dished out assists on Al Horford baskets on the next two possessions, and the 98-91 lead would not be in danger again.
“No matter if they made a run or not,” Horford said, “we always managed to move to the next play.”