Celtics

Celtics need the Game of Atonement vs. Pacers to begin... now

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Celtics need the Game of Atonement vs. Pacers to begin... now

BOSTON -- As much as coaches and players talk about staying in the moment in the playoffs, they sure don’t waste much time going all Bill Belichick on us when it comes to moving on.

Minutes after Boston’s Game 1 win over Indiana, Celtics head coach Brad Stevens was already laying out the need-to-get-better blueprint for Game 2 on Wednesday.

A similar scene was playing out in the Pacers locker room, which is understandable considering they held Boston to just 84 points and still lost by double figures.

As much as you will hear players and coaches talk about the playoffs being a game of survival, it’s also a Game of Atonement for all involved, regardless of the outcome.

The Pacers need to make some changes.

We get that.

But the Celtics?

They too see room — lots of room — for growth.

Here’s a look at some key areas that both teams didn't do as well as they would have liked in Game 1, with the goal being to atone for those shortcomings in Game 2.

BOSTON CELTICS

AL HORFORD

Horford had a double-double of 10 points and 11 rebounds along with five assists. But there was a sense in the moments following Boston’s Game 1 win, that they probably could have utilized Horford in an even more meaningful way.

“We need to do a better job of giving him space,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens, who added, “and getting him into advantageous action as a team and as a coaching staff, and so that is what we will try to figure out.”

When Stevens talks about “advantageous action” for Horford, the one matchup that worked against the Pacers most of this season, is getting him the ball on the block when matched up against Thaddeus Young.

In the four regular-season games plus Sunday’s Game 1 matchup, Young has defended Horford for 95 possessions.

Horford’s numbers when defended by Young?

He has scored a total of 17 points on 8-for-12 shooting from the field while the Celtics as a team have scored a total of 110 points.

And the idea of putting a different defender on him doesn’t exactly make limiting Horford’s impact any less.

In Indiana’s Nov. 3 win over Boston, Myles Turner spent the most time (36 possessions) guarding Horford, who still scored nine points on 4-for-10 shooting against Turner in addition to Boston scoring a total of 27 points.

And in Boston’s Jan. 9 win, Domantas Sabonis spent a Pacers-high 30 possessions on Horford, who scored four points on 2-for-4 shooting but dished out an eye-popping eight assists.

Better utilizing Horford in Game 2 should pay off handsomely for the Celtics.

FEWER TURNOVERS

The first half of Game 1 was uncharacteristically full of mistakes by Boston, resulting in 10 first-half turnovers that led to 11 points for the Pacers. Keep in mind this Celtics team ranked third during the regular season with just 12.8 turnovers per game.

But on a night when very little went according to how Indiana wanted, their defense - particularly when it came to forcing turnovers - was on point.

That's not all that surprising when you consider Indiana ranked third in the NBA in turnovers caused (15.6) per game.

Doing a better job of limiting those turnovers will indeed be a point of emphasis for Boston between now and Wednesday night’s tip-off.

KYRIE IRVING

Going forward, the Boston Celtics need Kyrie Irving to be a more efficient scorer than what we saw in Game 1. He shared game-high scoring honors of 20 points with Marcus Morris but he did so on a less-than-efficient shooting night in which he successfully converted just 6-of-17 field goal attempts.

Despite Irving struggling to make shots he normally makes, the Celtics had to be encouraged by what the six-time All-Star was able to do from a defensive standpoint.

His defensive rating of 74.6 was third among players to log at least 30 minutes of court time, and was tops among all guards on the floor.

And while defending at such a high level is certainly a huge plus for the Irving and the Marcus Smart-less Celtics, at the end of the day Irving knows as well as anyone that his ability to score will be what ultimately puts the Celtics over the top as a team. And the more efficient he is in doing that, the better Boston’s chances become of having a deep postseason run.

INDIANA PACERS

MAKE OPEN SHOTS

It sounds simple, but a big part of Indiana’s problems in Game 1 was their inability to knock down shots. The Pacers connected on just 33.3 percent of their field goal attempts, the worst shooting percentage among NBA teams in Game 1 matchups.

No surprise that the Pacers are also at the bottom among playoff teams when it comes to offensive rating (77.0) and are among the worst when it comes to 3-point shooting (22.2 percent, 13th among 16 playoff teams).

“It wasn’t a lack of effort; it was a lack of shot-making,” said Indiana’s Wes Matthews. “Ultimately, what doomed us was that third quarter.”

In the third, Boston outscored the Pacers 26-8 as Indiana missed 17 of its 19 shot attempts.

While that was indeed an outlier for them shooting, it wasn't like they were lighting it up in the other three quarters of play, either.

BOJAN BOGDANOVIC

Bojan Bogdanovic has been the Indiana Pacers’ best scorer, but the Celtics have been able to keep him under wraps in recent games.

In Game 1, the Celtics used nine different defenders on Bogdanovic, although Jaylen Brown spent the lion’s share of the game defending him.

Bogdanovic would score just 12 points, with just two of points coming while Brown defended him for what was 31 of 68 possessions.

“They did a pretty good job,” Bogdanovic said. “It’s playoff basketball; they’re grabbing, holding. At the end of the day I have to do a better job to get open.”

And that means doing a better job of utilizing his teammates when it comes to setting screens. From there, he also sees the need for him to better utilize switches to his advantage.

“Overall I have to be more aggressive,” he said.

And impactful. Because if he's struggling to score, the Pacers are in deep trouble just being able to compete, let alone win a game in this series.

FREE THROWS

On the road, any chance to get easy points has to be maximized. In addition to a ton of missed shots from the field, the Pacers also came away feeling as though they also shot themselves in the foot with one brick after another from the free throw line.

In Game 1, the Pacers were just 12-for-21 from the line, or 57.1 percent.

Now the Pacers have not been a great free throw shooting team all season, so to see them struggle in Game 1 wasn’t a total shock.

But as much as they have had their free throw issues of the past, those issues weren’t nearly as problematic as what we saw in Game 1.

During the regular season, Indiana shot 75.1 percent from the free throw line, which ranked 22nd in the NBA.

Looking at the number of free throw attempts (23.4) Indiana averages this season relative to how many they took in Game 1 (21), the Pacers probably missed about four more than they normally would.

But the problem wasn’t just that they were missing them, but the critical timing of those misses.

Four of those misses (on six attempts) came in the second quarter when Indiana was in control of the game and had the potential to extend their double-digit lead even more.

Those misses allowed Boston to hang around long enough to get their act together, go on a run and leave the Pacers playing the “What if …” game as they lick their wounds from a 10-point loss in Game 1 that was fueled in part by their inability to make easy shots… like free throws.

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What NBA's return-to-action plan means for the Celtics

What NBA's return-to-action plan means for the Celtics

When the NBA season was put on pause in March, the timing could not have been much better for the Boston Celtics. 

Wins were getting harder to come by (they had lost three of their last five), the jacuzzi-hot play of Jayson Tatum was starting to cool off some and Kemba Walker was headed towards a stretch of “strategic rest” days off because of knee soreness. 

And just like the rest of the NBA is fired up about the potential return to play reportedly as early as the end of late July, the Celtics are an eager bunch to restart the season as well. 

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And they should be for a number of reasons. 

First and foremost, there’s a very real chance that they can move up in the standings if the league adopts the reported return-to-play model which includes eight regular season games before the playoffs. 

Currently third in the East, the Celtics would begin the postseason against Philadelphia if the league went straight into the playoffs — an idea that hasn’t garnered a ton of support from owners or players. 

An eight-game slate of games would provide Boston with enough opportunities to potentially move ahead of Toronto and secure the No. 2 seed in the East. 

The way the standings look now, the potential for movement is great for many teams. 

Boston (43-21) trails the Raptors (46-18) by three games in the standings. Behind the Celtics you find the Heat (41-24) who are 2.5 games back.

The next closest teams to Boston beyond those two are Indiana and Philadelphia (both 39-26) who each trail Boston by 4.5 games. 

For the Celtics’ sake, moving up from their current draft position and avoiding a first-round matchup with Philadelphia would be the preferred path to take this postseason. 

The Sixers, one of the bigger disappointments this season, will feature a healthy Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, making them a much tougher foe come playoff time. 

For the Celtics, the alternative if they move up would be a Brooklyn Nets team that’s expected to play this postseason without Kyrie Irving or Kevin Durant who have both been out recovering from injuries. 

There’s also a chance that Boston would face the Indiana Pacers in the first round if the C's remain as the Eastern Conference’s No. 3 seed which, similar to facing Philadelphia, would provide a tough first-round matchup. 

The reboot to the season also allows more time for the Celtics to adjust to what’s shaping up to be a new pecking order. 

While Walker is the team’s most proven, most decorated talent, there’s no escaping the inevitable rise of Tatum as the face of the franchise (if he’s not already there). 

As the season wore on, his ascension was undeniable. Tatum began the season as a player the Celtics were hoping to see blossom into a big-time talent with the departures of Irving (Brooklyn) and Al Horford (Philadelphia).

Following his first All-Star appearance in February, Tatum averaged 29.9 points, 7.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists while shooting 47.2 percent from the field and 46.8 percent on 3’s. His ability to pick up where he left off would go far in Boston’s quest to build off the successes they had this past season. 

As for Walker, he had missed some games and played limited minutes in others shortly before the season was paused thanks to knee soreness.

The extended downtime without games or practice should allow Walker to return to action revived and refreshed.

And him being healthy combined with Tatum’s improved play gives the Celtics a potent 1-2 punch as they inch closer to rebooting the system and in doing so, restarting their journey towards what they believe will be a deep postseason run. 

Updated NBA playoff picture amid reported 22-team season return plan

Updated NBA playoff picture amid reported 22-team season return plan

The NBA is on track to return and finish the 2019-20 season.

The league reportedly is set to approve a 22-team format to conclude the campaign. ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted Wednesday the breakdown of the conferences.

It's important to note this proposal includes every playoff round keeping its normal Best-of-7 format, per Marc Stein of the New York Times. There had been speculation that the first round could return to a Best-of-5 format to allow the playoffs to be done quicker.

Under the proposal noted above, eight more regular season games will be played by each of the 22 teams, so it's still possible that teams outside of a playoff spot could jump into the mix if they play well upon returning. It's also very possible, especially in the Western Conference, that the seeding could change after the eight games are played. 

According to The Athletic's Shams Charania, a play-in tournament could decide the No. 8 seed in each conference. Here's how that would work:

If the ninth seed is more than four games behind the eighth seed, the eighth seed earns the playoff spot; if the ninth seed is four or fewer games behind, then the eighth and ninth seed will enter a play-in tournament that is double-elimination for the eighth seed and single-elimination for ninth.

Let's take an updated look at the playoff picture in both conferences.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

1. Milwaukee Bucks: 53-12, 0 games back
2. Toronto Raptors: 46-18, 6.5 GB
3. Boston Celtics: 43-21, 9.5 GB
4. Miami Heat: 41-24, 12 GB
5. Indiana Pacers: 39-26, 14 GB
6. Philadelphia 76ers: 39-26, 14 GB
7. Brooklyn Nets: 30-24, 22.5 GB
8. Orlando Magic: 30-25, 23 GB
9. Washington Wizards: 24-40, 28.5 GB

The Boston Celtics would play the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round if the league went straight to the playoffs. This would be a tough matchup for Boston given Philly's impressive roster and the fact the Sixers won three out of four games in the 2019-20 season series. 

But with eight regular season games left to be played under this proposal, it's possible the 76ers could move as high as the No. 4 or No. 5 seed. The ideal first-round opponent for the C's -- if they stay in the No. 3 seed -- would be the Indiana Pacers, who Boston swept in last year's first round. The Pacers don't have the same superstar skill, interior size or matchup problems that the Sixers would give the Celtics.

It's also possible the Celtics could fall to the No. 4 seed, or even climb to the No. 2 seed if the Toronto Raptors falter. The most likely scenario is the C's staying where they are at No. 3.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

1. Los Angeles Lakers: 49-14, 0 games back
2. Los Angeles Clippers: 44-20, 5.5 GB
3. Denver Nuggets: 43-22, 7 GB
4. Utah Jazz: 41-23, 8.5 GB
5. OKC Thunder: 40-24, 9.5 GB
6. Houston Rockets: 40-24, 9.5 GB
7. Dallas Mavericks: 40-27, 11 GB
8. Memphis Grizzlies: 32-33, 18 GB
9. Portland Trail Blazers: 29-37, 21.5 GB
10. New Orleans Pelicans: 28-36, 21.5 GB
11. Sacramento Kings: 28-36, 21.5 GB
12. San Antonio Spurs: 27-36, 22 GB
13. Phoenix Suns: 26-39, 24 GB

The regular season finish in the West could be crazy and exciting with seeds No. 4 through No. 7 separated by just 2.5 games. The Lakers would have to really collapse to lose the No. 1 seed, and the Clippers are unlikely to fall below No. 3. Aside from the two L.A. teams, much of the playoff seeding in the West remains up for grabs. 

The race for the final spot will be interesting as well. The New Orleans Pelicans, with No. 1 pick Zion Williamson healthy and in the lineup, will be among the most-watched teams. It would be awesome if the Pelicans earned the No. 8 seed and Williamson went up against LeBron James and the Lakers in the first round, but the odds aren't on New Orleans' side.

If the Grizzlies hold on and secure a postseason berth, their 2020 first-round pick will go to the Celtics.