The Boston Celtics completed their sweep of the Indiana Pacers Sunday, the franchise’s first since 2011. Before they take on the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round, we go over five takeaways from their first round series.
The Celtics gave us little reason to be confident in their ability to handle their business in the postseason. Their regular season was marred with inconsistent play and frustrating results that would make a run to the NBA Finals and a first round exit equally as likely.
It was clear during rough stretches of the regular season schedule that the Celtics were just waiting for the playoffs to start. Where they could play with a clean slate and finally start to realize their potential. It turns out a clean slate is all they needed. Boston completed their sweep of the Pacers Sunday with their second consecutive impressive road victory.
The Milwaukee Bucks most likely await them in the East semifinals, but before we look forward, let’s look back at what we can take away from a series where the Celtics finally looked like the team we all thought they would be.
Every game of this series was a grind. Both the Pacers and Celtics ranked in the top six in defensive rating this season so it wasn’t surprising to see both teams struggle to create easy baskets. Boston detractors will look at how each game was close to take away from the validity of each win, but it’s important to remember how good Indiana’s defense is.
They played extremely hard, had active hands and their rotations on the perimeter were terrific. Boston had to grind for every basket. It helps to have Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford and Gordon Hayward as your options offensively as opposed to Bojan Bogdanovic and Wesley Matthews, so that very well could have been the difference in the series.
Boston’s defense played exceptionally well too. The Pacers’ offense is predicated on ball movement and screens to get their best scorers open. You can’t just be a good defender to put the clamps on them, you need to be disciplined, and that’s exactly what the Celtics did as they held Indiana to a near-league low 95.8 offensive rating in the postseason.
Milwaukee sported the fourth best offense in the NBA this season, so the Celtics will need to retain their stinginess on the defensive end if they are to move on to the Eastern Conference Finals.
We all knew the Celtics had star power heading into this season, but their depth was the reason so many experts were comfortable predicting they would easily finish atop the East standings. It turned out to be more of a weakness than a strength, as players like Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward struggled to settle into roles they weren’t entirely comfortable in.
Against the Pacers, the Celtics’ depth became a strength again. Three of Boston’s five leaders in NET rating in this series were bench players (Rozier, Morris, Hayward), and no game signified their impact more than Game 4, where those three combined for 49 points on 18-24 shooting.
It wasn’t too long ago when I said the Celtics couldn’t afford to give Rozier significant minutes anymore, but I can admit when I’m wrong. Rozier had some really good moments in this series, especially in Games 2 and 4.
The Bucks will almost certainly be favored in the second round, you know, after being the best team in the league this year. But if the Celtics’ key bench players continue to play the way they have been, Milwaukee is going to have a hard time putting together two wins in a series, let alone four.
Kyrie Irving’s rough shooting
Irving was the Celtics’ offense down the stretch of all four games, and in one way or another, he delivered like elite players do in the postseason. The one negative of Irving’s series as his shooting. If you take out his incredible Game 2 performance, where he scored 37 points on 15-26 shooting, Irving shot 34.6 percent from the field and 31.3 percent from three.
Credit the Pacers defense for making life as difficult as possible for Irving. The Bucks aren’t going to make it any easier, so the Celtics will have to work to find different ways to get him open. With Hayward’s return to form in the first round, perhaps more lineups with Hayward as the primary ballhandler and Irving working off the ball could do the trick.
The real Gordon Hayward
Hayward closed the regular season strong, but the Pacers series was his coming out party. He averaged 12.3 points shooting 48.6 percent from the field and 44.4 percent from three, but more importantly he looked like his old self. Hayward is the Celtics’ X-factor in the playoffs. If he plays well, they could win it all. If not, It’s going to be tough to make it past Milwaukee.
With his defensive versatility, scoring and playmaking, Hayward gives the Celtics the perfect counter to heavy attention on Irving. If he can build on his great play against Indiana, the Bucks are going to have to answer a lot of questions defensively in the second round.