From Kyrie Irving’s swagger to Terry Rozier’s re-emergence to Semi Ojeleye’s quest to not react to his teammate getting dunked on, here are 14 thoughts and observations about the Celtics following their four-game sweep of the Pacers:
■ With Marcus Smart still sidelined indefinitely with a strained left oblique, Rozier’s performance against Indiana was probably the most important development.
Rozier had a disappointing regular season. But he was a breakout star with Irving injured in last season’s playoffs and vowed to redeem himself in this postseason. His offensive numbers against Indiana were modest — 7.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.8 assists on 38 percent shooting — but he affected games with his ball pressure and energy. The Celtics outscored the Pacers by 14.4 points per 100 possessions with Rozier on the floor, the second-highest net rating on the team during the series, trailing only Al Horford.
“You know if you watch the playoffs enough, he can go to another level physically and competitively that can be effective, especially this time of the year,” coach Brad Stevens said. “I’m really happy for him. I don’t think he ever eclipsed 22 or 23 minutes in the series ever but every minute he played felt impactful, and we know what he can do when he’s given more opportunity. For him to just stay the course all year and be ready for this time of year to make a big difference, kudos to him.”
■ Speaking of net ratings, in case there was any doubt about Horford’s value, consider this: Boston had a plus-14.7 rating during Horford’s 138 minutes on the floor and a minus-15.0 during his 58 minutes on the bench. That second figure is almost implausible considering Boston won all four games of the series.
■ And here is an encouraging one: The Celtics had a plus-4.8 net rating with Irving on the court and a plus-10.1 without him. If they are going to advance, they will need to continue to find ways to thrive, or at least not crumble, when Irving is resting.
■ Horford is usually best at stepping back and gauging this team’s overall temperature, and he generally provides the most honest assessments. Here’s how he viewed things after the sweep:
“Our group showed me that we were able to stick together like this,” he said. “We’re all committed to doing the little things on the defensive end. On offense, we can be special. I was very encouraged by our group and different guys stepping up at different times.”
Jayson Tatum was similarly optimistic.
“We’re clicking at the right time,” Tatum said. “We look like the team everybody thought we would be. It took some ups and downs for us to get here, I like the way we look.”
■ Of the eight first-round playoff series, the matchup between the Spurs and the Nuggets was the only one that is 2-2 after four games. Several of the 3-1 series have had some compelling moments, but the NBA cannot love the overall lack of competitiveness in the first round so far.
If most of these remaining series wrap up in five games, it will have a slight impact on next season’s salary cap, as the league’s projected “basketball related income” will likely come in less than expected. But there are plenty of juicy matchups lurking in the second round.
■ Irving exploded for 37 points on 15 for 26 shooting in Game 2, but the Pacers actually contained him quite well otherwise. In the other three games he shot 35.3, 36.8, and 30.8 percent from the field, respectively, averaging 17.6 points per game.
■ Irving reached the Finals in three consecutive years with the Cavaliers, and his related savvy has been evident, both on the court and off. After Sunday’s win, several Celtics talked openly about facing the top-seeded Bucks in the semifinals.
The Bucks, of course, had yet to finish their first-round series against the Pistons. But Irving was already aware of potential slights, consistently mentioning the Pistons, too, as a potential second-round opponent.
■ The official word might not come out for a few more days, but it’s sounding increasingly likely that the Celtics will open their second-round series against Milwaukee on Sunday.
■ There were very few highlight-reel plays in this slog of a series, but Myles Turner provided one when he threw down a violent slam over Gordon Hayward on Sunday. The natural reaction for anyone in this moment is to gasp or gawk or grab the person next to you in a did-you-see-that way. But this can get complicated when the person being dunked on is your teammate. Ojeleye’s reaction was one of the funniest moments of this series. He was on the bench, and you could see him start to freak out, but after just a millisecond he remembered that the victim was his teammate, so he instantly subdued himself.
■ As Hayward was carving up the Pacers in the second half, Horford bestowed a location-appropriate if not entirely clever nickname on the forward who played collegiately for Stevens in Indianapolis.
“I just kept saying, ‘Let’s go Butler.’ That’s what I kept saying. I was so hyped for him, and glad that we were able to close it out. He’s one of the main reasons why.”
■ The undermanned Pacers competed and earned the respect of the Celtics, but let’s not pretend that this series was not boring. It was a sweep, both offenses were mostly ugly, there were no overtime games or buzzer-beaters, there was no chirping in the media between the teams, there were no altercations.
Here’s hoping the Bucks spice things up a bit.
■ I’m sure Hayward is looking forward to the day when he no longer has to answer questions about his progress since recovering from last season’s injury. That day has not arrived yet, but if he keeps playing like he has been, it is certainly getting closer.
■ It takes a certain swagger to be a superstar, and Irving certainly has that. Here is how he answered a question about how his teammates have helped him in situations in which he has been trapped and blitzed by defenses:
“They’re doing a tremendous job of really just making those next second-side plays and being aggressive and not being afraid to make a play for someone else as well. You’ve just got to keep giving them that confidence. Obviously I know how great I am with the ball, but we’re even more special as a team when I’m being aggressive and then I’m getting off the ball and they’re making great decisions as well.”
■ The Celtics have two road wins in these playoffs, already eclipsing their total (one) from last season, when they stormed within one game of the NBA Finals. That could be significant, because unlike last year, when they had home-court advantage in all three rounds, they will not have it again moving forward.