After knocking on the door of the NBA finals last season the Boston Celtics grabbed the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. 2019 was a season of growing pains for Kyrie Irving as a leader and for the young group as a whole. Gordon Hayward returned from injury with mixed results. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown took the normal ups and downs of young budding stars. The Celtics simply weren’t as dominant as people thought they would be before the season began.
That does not mean that there isn’t a reason for optimism as the Celtics gear up to take on the Indiana Pacers in round one. Boston still has an elite crunch-time playmaker in Kyrie Irving and have the supporting cast and pedigree to be right in the thick of things as the playoffs progress. The East got much more competitive this season with several teams adding depth in an arms race for the LeBron-less Eastern Conference playoff race. Boston also “added” players with the return of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward who were missing from their playoff rosters last season. On paper, the Celtics have just as much as anyone and their young guys already have a deep playoff run under their belt.
The Indiana Pacers lost their star Victor Oladipo and could have mailed the season in. Instead, their nothing-to-lose attitude gave them a playoff berth. Even without Oladipo, Indiana is very stout defensively and still have guys on their roster that can fill it up.
Myles Turner has a case for Defensive Player of the Year after finishing as the NBA’s leader in blocks and opponent field goal percentage at the rim. Domantas Sabonis lead all bench players in double-doubles (27 off the bench). Bogdan Bogdanovic does not get nearly the love that he should outside of Indiana but is a flamethrower that can score in multiple ways.
Even without a star, the Indiana Pacers have the depth and defense to win games in the postseason.
*All times Eastern
- Game 1: Sunday, April 14, 1 p.m. (TD Garden) TV: TNT
- Game 2: Wednesday, April 17, 7 p.m. (TD Garden) TV: TNT
- Game 3: Friday, April 19, 8:30 p.m. (Bankers Life Fieldhouse) TV: ABC
- Game 4: Sunday, April 21, 1 p.m. (Bankers Life Fieldhouse) TV: ABC
- Game 5: Wednesday, April 24* (TD Garden) TV: TBD
- Game 6: Friday, April 26* (Bankers Life Fieldhouse) TV: TBD
- Game 7: Sunday, April 28* (TD Garden) TV: TBD
How Can They Succeed?
Boston simply has to come out and play up to their talent level. It sounds simple but we have seen the Jekyll and Hyde act from their offense all season. Kyrie Irving is going to score but it has to be an efficient, low-turnover performance from him each game. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are going to have to tap into their playoff juices from last year where they pushed the LeBron-James led Cavaliers to seven games. Boston’s biggest advantage is that their young guys have done this before and they now have added Kyrie and Gordon Hayward to the formula. As long as everyone does their jobs, Boston’s more talented roster should advance.
Brad Stevens is a brilliant offensive mind and will need every wrinkle on deck to combat an Indiana defense that allowed the fewest points in the NBA this season. In their last meeting, he did just that as Boston cruised to a 21 point victory behind a 9-9 shooting performance from Gordon Hayward. Boston attacked Indiana’s defense early before they could set up and I would expect for the Celtics to once again come out with great pace.
Who Is their X-Factor?
Gordon Hayward returned this season and has played excellent of late. Marcus Smart’s injury brings up an intriguing proposition. Lineups with Hayward, Marcus Morris, Jayson Tatum, Irving, and Al Horford are +41.3 in 114 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass. Hayward has averaged 18.4 points per game in his last five games coming into this series. Should he start or remain the leader of the bench mob?
The sample size is small but the timing is significant. Hayward is playing his best basketball at the perfect time for Boston. He and Irving could surge in the playoffs and if they establish success it could change the way that fans and (more importantly) free agents look at Boston’s situation going forward. If the Celtics make a deep run it will be because Hayward continues to be aggressive and seek out scoring opportunities.
One Positive Stat In Their Favor
The Indiana Pacers benefitted from a soft schedule after Victor Oladipo’s injury. While no one was really paying attention the Pacers limped to a 4-6 record to close the year out including a 20-point blowout at the hands of these same Celtics in the last week of the regular season. Boston’s momentum is trending up while Indiana’s has gone in the opposite direction. The Celtics are overwhelmingly better on paper and the numbers point toward the possibility of this being a short series.