BOSTON — Celtics guard Kyrie Irving knew his presence had been requested for a walk-off interview that would detail his game-winning layup in the closing seconds of Friday’s triumph over the Indiana Pacers but, before he obliged, he stood near the end of the Boston bench for a moment congratulating teammates as they headed for the locker room.
Finally, he started towards the camera before spotting a couple more teammates making their way from the other end of the floor. Again, Irving rushed over to dap them up before finally launching into his interview.
It was clear that this one felt good for Irving and the Celtics.
- MORE CELTICS - Anatomy of a game-winner: How Kyrie beat the Pacers
And that should be your big takeaway from Boston's 114-112 win over the Pacers: The Celtics won a high-stakes game with a playoff-like feel against a quality opponent they’ll see a LOT of the new four weeks, all while putting themselves in the rare position to actually make their lives a teeny tiny bit easier in the postseason.
It was far from perfect but, much like in the playoffs, a win is a win is a win. This was one of those gotta-have-it type games that the Celtics haven’t always shown up for this season. And, after trading haymakers with these gritty-as-hell Pacers, coach Brad Stevens put the ball in Irving’s hands in the final seconds and let him win it.
“Kind of like a pre-feel-out game, if you want to call it for the playoffs, but homecourt advantage was at stake and, I know we see them again one more time, so we’ll see how that goes and just keep on getting better for the rest of the regular season,” said Irving, who scored a game-high 30 points on 11-of-22 shooting.
Irving didn’t have a particularly crisp fourth quarter but it was obvious where the ball was going in the closing seconds. He took a handoff from Al Horford near a crowded sideline and still managed to waltz to the rim, the threat of a kick out preventing the Pacers from truly clogging his way.
“We just wanted to give him space on that side of the floor and let him be him,” said Stevens.
Sometimes it’s that simple. Though nothing about the previous 47 minutes, 59.5 seconds was particularly easy. The Celtics jumped out to an early lead then, keeping with 2018-19 team policy, they let the Pacers right back in the game.
Indiana would surge ahead a few times in the second half in a game that featured six lead changes and 10 ties. Boston nearly coughed the game up when the Pacers blitzed an Irving handoff in a tied game with 38 seconds to go. The ball rolled free and Indiana couldn’t quite corral it quick enough, forcing Nate McMillan to call a timeout with 27 seconds to go.
- BLAKELY'S STARS, STUDS & DUDS - Kyrie the hero, but don't forget about Baynes
Darren Collison’s pull-up over Irving was a little long and Jaylen Brown hauled in the rebound, allowing Stevens to draw up the final sequence.
“We just had to be resilient,” said Irving. "They do a great job mucking up the game. … We did a great job tonight of just playing with that pace and playing with that physicality to match theirs.”
The Celtics got more good returns from the Al Horford/Aron Baynes two-big starting lineup that they’ll likely lean heavily on when able in this playoff matchup. Boston’s starting 5 of Irving-Horford-Baynes-Jayson Tatum-Marcus Smart owned a net rating of plus-51.7 in 13 minutes together. That included a defensive rating of 86.2. Those are absurdly good numbers.
The Baynes/Horford two-man combo had a defensive rating of 90.7 over 19 minutes. Over the last two games, that combo has a plus-14.4 net rating with a defensive rating of 92.6 over 38 minutes.
Said Horford: “[Baynes] makes a big difference for us.”
What’s wild is that a week ago, we were all sitting here wondering if Baynes might be able to return for Round 2 of the postseason, assuming Boston got that far, after he suffered what the team initially termed a Grade 2 ankle sprain in Philadelphia.
Instead, Baynes’ ankle magically healed — he missed just one game — and on Friday night he logged a season-high 33 minutes while putting up his first double-double of the year (13 points, 13 rebounds). He thanked Boston’s medical staff for keeping him upright.
Who knew Baynes would emerge as the Celtics’ savior? For a Celtics team that’s defense had eroded wildly over the past two months, a healthy Baynes has made a world of a difference. Still, in a league that loves small ball, the Celtics won’t always be able to lean on the Horford/Baynes pairing but Stevens has pledged to deploy it when able.
These small glimpses of what’s effective might be more meaningful than the wins and losses, though there’s little disputing the benefit of the win. The Celtics put themselves in the driver’s seat to secure the fourth seed, pulling even with Indy in the standings, while taking a 2-1 series lead (that maddening late-game loss in Indy in November biting them a bit now) with a final head-to-head meeting looming next week at their place.
If the Celtics simply keep pace with Indy and win that final meeting, they will earn the No. 4 seed and homecourt advantage in the first round. Boston must balance that quest with a persistent desire to rest bodies, particularly with a quick turnaround with Saturday’s back-to-back in Brooklyn.
Maybe home court should matter after what we saw Friday. The Pacers are going to be scrappy and make Boston work. The absence of Victor Oladipo looms large and should seemingly keep the Celtics as favorites in the series regardless of location but, well, every little bit helps.
Especially for a Celtics team that has made everything difficult for itself. It did the same thing Friday but, this time around, they made sure it didn’t get away from them in the end. Progress!
That was a quality win, regardless of aesthetics. The sort of win they can cling to and draw from in a postseason rematch. There are still many strides to be made to be the sort of contender they were billed to be entering the season but the fact remains: This time of year, a win is a win is a win.
Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.