INDIANAPOLIS — There reached a point in the Celtics’ opening-round series against the Pacers when it became obvious that the talent gap was simply too large. The Pacers would scratch and claw and try to create an opportunity, and the Celtics would methodically pluck them away, mostly treating them as a nuisance.
Even though a Celtics series victory had felt inevitable, the Celtics had been through too much during this tumultuous year to shrug about advancing to the conference semifinals. Al Horford was asked whether the locker room was businesslike after Boston completed a series sweep Sunday with a 110-106 win, and he raised his eyebrows to make it clear that it was not.
“We were happy,” he said. “Very happy. Very grateful. Really acknowledging this, we really put in the work, everyone. And we’re definitely enjoying this one tonight.”
This is Boston’s first sweep since closing out the Knicks in four games in the first round of the 2011 playoffs.
But Game 4 against the Pacers on Sunday unfolded much like the three that preceded it. Indiana was pesky and lingered for much of the afternoon, but in the end its lack of offense was glaring.
Even though the Pacers were overmatched, it was still an encouraging performance by the Celtics, who have put their sour regular season further into the rearview mirror with each passing day.
“The regular season is done with,” Marcus Morris said. “We’re not that same team.”
Boston will now have nearly a week to prepare for its likely semifinal matchup against the Bucks, who have a commanding 3-0 lead over the eighth-seeded Pistons.
Players like Morris and Gordon Hayward spoke openly about facing the Bucks, even though technically Milwaukee has not advanced yet. It is no surprise that the Celtic with by far the most playoff experience, Kyrie Irving, also included the Pistons as he talked about what comes next.
Boston beat Milwaukee in the first round of last season’s playoffs in a tense seven-game series, but a lot has changed since then. The Celtics have Irving and Hayward now, and the Bucks crafted a dominant 60-win season that gave them the best record in the NBA.
Irving did not mention the Bucks by name, but made it clear that he will not be intimidated by their flashy record.
“Honestly, I’m not really paying attention to who is the top team in the conference during the regular season,” he said. “Those wins are racked up already. Those are pretty set. I think at this point it’s about who can beat a team in a seven-game series? It’s just a reset button. We know what to expect.”
Aside from Marcus Smart’s uncertain return from an oblique tear, the Celtics could not be in a much better position as they enter a stretch of the postseason that promises to be considerably more daunting than what they’ve completed.
There have been times when players essentially waited for Irving to carry them, and on Sunday, as Irving faced double-teams he continued to spray passes to those who were better positioned to attack.
“He just kept getting rid of it to the next guy, and the next guy had to make the right read and play,” coach Brad Stevens said. “The ball whipped around the way it’s supposed to. It’s really encouraging. I think we’re a hard team to double if we’re really moving it like that.”
Hayward’s 20-point effort off the bench led seven players in double figures in scoring. While Horford and Irving combined to make just 8 of 32 shots, Hayward and Morris stepped in and drilled 14 of 20.
Bojan Bogdanovic led Indiana with 22 points and eight rebounds, but really the Pacers were left to wonder what could have been. When Victor Oladipo was lost for the season with a knee injury on Jan. 23, the Pacers were 32-15 and just 2½ games out of first place. Without Oladipo they crumbled, going 16-23, including this four-game sweep.
Oladipo attended Sunday’s game and received a hearty cheer when he was shown on the video board near the start of the first quarter, but the fans here mostly seemed defeated, or just aware of the inevitable. There were large swaths of empty seats throughout the arena, each one covered by a free yellow T-shirt.
Much like in the other games in this series, the Pacers put themselves in position to be a threat. They led by 7 points twice in the third quarter. But in each of their four losses, they were undone by seemingly interminable stretches of quiet offense.
This time, Indiana scored just 4 points over a stretch of 5 minutes, 15 seconds that carried from the end of the third quarter into the start of the fourth. That allowed Boston to take the lead for the first time since late in the second quarter.
The Pacers led, 82-81, when Cory Joseph was called for a flagrant foul after hitting Jayson Tatum in the head on a fast break. Indiana’s offense hit another lull after that, while Morris and Hayward combined to put the Pacers away. Over a stretch of less than three minutes, Morris hit a pair of 3-pointers and Hayward added a 3-pointer and a 3-point play, making it 98-87.
“It’s just the beginning for us,” Hayward said. “We’ve still got a lot of work to do.”