The Celtics, on the power of an explosive second half, took Game 1 of their first-round playoff series against Indiana with Sunday’s 84-74 win.
In his first playoff game as a Celtic, Irving became just third player in franchise history to have 20-plus points, five-plus assists and five-plus rebounds in his postseason debut with the team. He joined Isaiah Thomas in 2015 and JoJo White in 1972.
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It was a game stripped of aesthetics and replaced by something that the absent Marcus Smart would have especially appreciated – an effort dictated by defense and a grind-out style of basketball.
Al Horford thought back to a truly rare first half moment, when what he thought would be an easy dunk off the break was rejected at the rim by Indianas Thaddeus Young. And when Jayson Tatum attempted to open the third quarter with a drive, Myles Turner was there to send it back. Welcome to the playoffs.
They were great tonight, getting back in transition, Horford said of the Pacers. First half tonight I get my shot blocked, I thought I had a dunk for sure, then Thad comes out of nowhere. Tatum started the third, we think he has a layup, Turner blocks it, just one of those gritty games. You have to continue to do those little things.
For all of their early mistakes, the Celtics only trailed by seven points (45-38) at halftime. It was apparently a sign from the basketball gods.
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Their 22-3 run over the first 8:04 of the third quarter coincided with an arctic stretch from the Pacers, who missed 12 of their first 13 shots and finished the third 2-for-19 from the floor with five turnovers. The first of the two made shots was Horfords goaltend of Cory Joseph.
Boston Celtics Playoffs 2019: Marcus Morris benefits from break, saves Celtics during cold first half
For a Celtics team that had shot 13-for-40 in the first half, and thanks to a revived Marcus Morris (15 first half points) only trailed by seven points (45-38) after the first 24 minutes, the halftime break appeared to make all of the difference.
Kyrie Irving overcame a seven-point, 3-for-10 start to finish with 20 points on 6-for-17 shooting, and Morris matched him with 20 points and seven rebounds.
But Brad Stevens disagrees with the suggestion that the Celtics began the 2019 playoffs a little tight.
And yet, let’s zoom out. If you just look at the first, second, and fourth quarters, things look better. The Pacers won this group of time 66-58. They played well during those times. And looking on the defensive end alone, they played a great game. Giving up 84 is solid. It’s really good.
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Thats not fair to Indiana, said the Celtics coach. Those guys guarded their butts off and that looked like a 1980s playoff game with the score. Its 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. They were tremendous defensively and did some things a little differently than they had (in the last two games of the regular season) in a lot of ways. This was like Game 3 because we had played each other a couple of times in recent weeks. We have to make sure we get a lot better to get the looks we want and knock them in.
Celtics dominate second half to defeat Pacers in Game 1
Terry Roziers 3-point runner with a second left in the third quarter was, essentially, the final spike. It was good for a 64-53 after a third quarter that couldnt have been more lopsided for both sides. The Celtics carved out this space thanks to a quarter-opening 22-3 run, with the Pacers missing 12 of their first 13 shots, finally shooting 2-for-19 with five turnovers.
The Celtics, thanks to a pair of Tyreke Evans misses at the line, also ran off the first four points of the fourth quarter, including a Hayward transition drive off a Horford feed that triggered an Indiana timeout.
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Cory Joseph scored for Indiana with 9:03 left, and the run continued with Tatum and Irving burying consecutive bombs, extending the run to 10-2 and the lead to 74-55.
Threes from Horford and Tatum down the stretch helped keep the Pacers at arms length the rest of the way.
But the Celtics clearly took Game 1 thanks to their return to a grinding brand of basketball, as evidenced by the sight of Irving, as much as everyone else, hitting the floor for loose balls.
Just to set an example for myself first and foremost, just to go out there and really throw myself in there, said Irving. For me I just tried to really be aggressive on the ball, be in the right spots. I had some costly fouls here and there that could have gone either way, but I just want to stay aggressive and really be the head of the snake and stay aggressive on the ball. Defensively, I know thats where we make our mark. And when were going out in transition and getting stops, thats when were at our best.
A third act began at the 6:20 of the first quarter in Game 1 of the opening round series against the Indiana Pacers. Checking in with the Celtics down 12-6, Morris keyed a run to tie the game at 18. In a half where the Celtics managed just 38 points on 32.5 percent shooting, Morris stood out with 15 of those points on 43 percent shooting. He also took nine of Boston 11 first half free throws to keep the Celtics alive when they simply looked terrible.
Pretty much no one but the 18-something thousand in the Garden saw them shoot 32.5 percent in the first half. No one but those in attendance saw them turn the ball over a hideous 10 times in the opening 24 minutes while falling behind Indiana by as many as 11 points on the way to a 45-38 deficit at the break.
“I know,” said Brad Stevens with a smile as he walked away from the postgame interview room. “Tiger.”
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It wasn’t until Eldrick Woods had taken down the Masters and secured his 15th major that full attention could be turned to Causeway Street. The Tiger effect stretched all the way from Augusta to the North End, drowning out every other sporting exercise in its wake.
By then, the Celtics had decided to truly play some basketball. They should thank Tiger for sparing them the national embarrassment of their shooting.
And while Woods was hitting a fairway metal off the 18th tee, the C’s started gripping it and ripping it. They scored the first 11 points of the third quarter and grew that into a 22-3 run to take command.
And not only were the Bostonians firing at pins, it helped their cause, too, that Indiana kept rinsing its shots in the Charles. The Pacers were rather Molinari-like, missing their first 10 shots from the floor.
It wasn’t until 3:28 remained in the third period that they were credited with their first field goal of the session — and that came with Al Horford was called for goaltending a Cory Joseph drive. In other words, Indiana’s first bucket of the half didnt even make it through the strings.
The Celtics cooled off, scoring just 24 points over the last 16 minutes after posting those 22 in the first eight of the second half. But they avoided becoming the third straight higher-seeded team in the East to fall into an 0-1 hole on its home floor by playing with the kind of physical intensity that would have earned them several more wins that they performed that way on anything resembling a regular basis in the regular season season.
Hes made great progress and I know hes excited, Stevens said. Obviously was operating under a microscope as we were all watching him kind of come back. But obviously at the end of the year—we said all year, Game 20 is going to be better than Game 1. Game 40 is gonna be better than 20, 60 better than 20 and 80s gonna be better than all of them. And that was the case.
But these are the playoffs, and like the Bruins’ metamorphosis from Game 1 spectators to Game 2 aggressors against the Maple Leafs, the Celtics took a page from their mates down the hall and took the body in the second half. It wasn’t that they were weenies or anything in the first two periods, but they raised their checking game in the third, and the Pacers seemed unprepared for this kind of hockey on hardwood. Their most frequent response was to complain to the officials as the Celts ran in the opposite direction with the ball.
The coach noted that it was more of a positioning thing, but added, “You cant give teams layups, and you’ve got to challenge shots as well as you can. And then rebounding and owning your space on offense had been our No. 1 and 2 emphases over the last four days. (It was) disappointing the way they got under us a little. We knew that they would come at us.”
But, warming to one of Red Auerbach’s most important tenets, the Celtics were instigators rather than retaliators in the second half — with the notable exception of Jaylen Brown’s two-hand shove of Bojan Bogdanovic that earned a technical after the two had been trading words and elbows a while.
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“They’re a team that just plays hard,” said Horford, who hauled in a game-high 11 rebounds and facilitated the offense with five assists to go with his 10 points on 10 shots from the floor. “They play the right way. Theyre tough. You have to match that in order to have any chance. And I feel like that third quarter was huge for us tonight.”
Even larger for their image, because those who tuned in from that point on will come away believing these are the Celtics they expected from the season tip-off.
The first half had been a very nice old-school rock fight of sorts, but Tiger lowered the ratings before the C’s could master the afternoon.
And that was fine with all local concerns. Celts’ co-owner Steve Pagliuca was in his Garden seat and focused on the game in front of him, but, golf enthusiast that he is, he admitted getting regular updates on his phone from his son-in-law and caught the final holes in a Garden private club before his team made him very happy after halftime. He’d also hit the links in the morning to get ready for, uh, this playoff opener.
Danny Ainge generally tries to stay away from active participation in his job on this holy day of the week, but one has to wonder where his attention lay.
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“Oh, he wasn’t watching us,” cracked Stevens. “And if he was, I’m sure he had one eye on Tiger, too.”
By the time the Celtics got all the attention of their president of basketball operations — and the rest of the viewing public — they were more than ready for their close-up.