Breaking down the Celtics-Pacers first-round series
BOSTON - The time that the Celtics have been longing for has finally arrived.
It's playoff time, when Boston can answer all the questions and second-guessing surrounding the team in what should be put-up-or-shut-up mode.
Here's a look at the key matchups, X-factors and players you need to watch that you probably didn't know you need to watch, as the C's open their postseason journey against the Indiana Pacers. Game 1 of the best-of-seven series is Sunday at 1 p.m. at TD Garden:
STARTERS: KYRIE IRVING VS. DARREN COLLISON
Irving is a 27-year-old, six-time All-Star who just completed his best season in terms of efficiency and all-around play. Collison is a solid point guard and is working his way back after missing time with a groin injury. EDGE: Celtics
JAYLEN BROWN VS. WES MATTHEWS
Brown will likely get the starting nod with Marcus Smart (oblique) out for all of this first-round series. He’s not the defender that Smart is, but he’s a better scorer and the potential for him to be an elite defender has always been there. Wes Matthews is a cagey veteran, but is a suspect defender and is shooting just 38 percent from the floor. EDGE: Celtics
JAYSON TATUM VS. BOJAN BOGDANOVIC
Tatum has improved his scoring, rebounding and assists numbers from a year ago, while Bogdanovic has been the Pacers’ top scorer since Victor Oladipo’s season-ending injury in January. EDGE: Even
AL HORFORD VS. THADDEUS YOUNG
Al Horford’s strength and size will allow him to continue to get the better of Young and the rest of the Pacers. But Young is one of the scrappier undersized power forwards around and will do his part to keep Indiana competitive. EDGE: Celtics.
ARON BAYNES VS. MYLES TURNER
Baynes has provided the kind of elite defense that the Celtics needed in the starting lineup, but Turner is really good at stretching defenses because of his shooting in addition to being a willing banger around the basket. EDGE: Pacers.
Throughout the various incarnations, we have seen from the Celtics’ second unit, two things stand out. Second units don’t score a ton against them, and Boston more nights than not get a lion’s share of the Celtics’ points. According to Hoopsstats.com, Boston allows opponents to generate a league-low 34.2 points off the bench while scoring 39.3 which is tied for ninth in the league. Leading Boston’s second unit surge of late has been Gordon Hayward. In Boston’s past eight games, Hayward has come off the bench to average 16.4 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists this season while shooting 58.5 percent from the field. The Pacers are led by Domantas Sabonis, one of the top sixth men in the NBA this past season in which he averaged 14.1 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.9 assists while tallying 30 double-doubles. But they will also lean on Corey Joseph as the backup point, Tyreke Evans who remains a jack-of-all-trades and the sharpshooting of Doug McDermott. EDGE: Celtics
Both teams come in a less-than-ideal state as far as their health is concerned. The Celtics will be without Marcus Smart (oblique) and the Pacers are missing their best player, Victor Oladipo (knee). If the players slated to play can remain in good health for the duration of the series, that bodes well for Boston, which has more depth and overall, more proven, established talent.
The Celtics have a trio of wild card players who could swing this series from one in which Boston is favored into one that they dominate. And at the top of that list has to be Rozier. He has admittedly had an up-and-down season, one that has seen his game fluctuate dramatically between being a starter - which isn’t going to happen in this series as long as Irving is healthy - and a backup. But there’s no denying the track record when he’s with the first unit. This season, Boston is 7-0 at home when Rozier is in the starting lineup. And his strong play at the TD Garden is no fluke when you consider for his career - and that includes the playoffs - Boston has a 23-3 record.
PLAYERS TO WATCH THAT YOU DIDN’T KNOW YOU NEED TO WATCH: ARON BAYNES
The Celtics are good, but the insertion of Aron Baynes into the starting lineup has brought them much closer to being the elite, title-contending team so many felt they would be this season. And he’s doing more than just providing a tough presence defensively. In addition to his strong rim protection, Baynes has also been an impact performer as a scoring option as a rebounder, which is evident by him tallying three double-doubles in the past six games. He appeared in 81 games last season and totaled four double-doubles.
The former rookie of the year is easy to overlook, but do so at your own risk. Evans’ versatility could become an issue in this series with the Celtics not having Smart, who has the size, length and strength to match up well with Evans. However, it’s unclear how healthy Evans will be in this series after reportedly having his knee drained recently. Still, keeping him from having a big night scoring will go far in Boston’s quest to move on to the second round. This past season, the Pacers were 9-2 this season when Evans scored at least 17 points.
With Jaylen Brown or Gordon Hayward likely to be in the starting lineup in place of Smart, the Celtics will need pre-All Star break Morris in this series. Back then, he was in the middle of career-best start to the season. Prior to the All-Star break, Morris averaged 14.5 points and 6.1 rebounds while shooting 47.6 percent from the field and 40.9 percent from 3-point range. Since then, Morris’ numbers have dipped to 12.5 points shooting connecting on 37.8 percent from the field and just 30 percent on 3’s while grabbing 6.2 rebounds.