Five burning Celtics-Pacers questions that need to be asked but aren't

Five burning Celtics-Pacers questions that need to be asked but aren't

BOSTON -- The one great thing about the playoffs is more than any other time of the year, there’s no hiding from the truth about who you are as a team.

Whatever questions a team’s play may have raised in the regular season, they go into the playoffs with a clean slate, a chance to set the record straight for whatever wobbly play they had during the regular season.

But going into every playoff series, there are questions that in time will be answered.

Some are obvious like who is the best player going into this series?

Kyrie Irving, of course.

Others aren't quite of the no-brainer variety.

That’s why on the cusp of Boston’s first-round matchup with the Indiana Pacers this afternoon, we take a look at a few questions that should be addressed between now and tip-off that most fans probably aren't thinking about, but should anyway.

Who gives the Celtics the best chance at limiting Indy top scorer Bojan Bogdanovic?

He becomes a hot topic of discussion not only because he has been the Pacers’ best scorer since Victor Oladipo went down with a season-ending injury in January, but also because the man who has done the best job defensively on him, Marcus Smart, will be out for this entire series after suffering an oblique injury against Orlando last week.

Boston will employ a multitude of defenders, but keep an eye on Jayson Tatum.

According to Second Spectrum statistics, Tatum defended Bogdanovic for 53 possessions in the four games between Boston and Indiana this season.

When guarded by Tatum, Bogdanovic scored a total of eight points on 2-for-9 shooting.

And you have to figure part of Tatum’s defense will be to make Bogdanovic have to defend him.

Bogdanovic defended Tatum for 64 possessions this season, but only two of those possessions came in their last game which was a Celtics blowout win in Indiana earlier this month.

In total, Tatum scored 16 points on 5-for-10 shooting when guarded by Bogdanovic this season.

Does home court really matter in this series?

The Celtics get a lot of credit for being a good road team, in part because that’s who they were a year ago.

But this team, this season?

Not so much.

Boston finished with a 21-20 road record this season, making them one of nine teams in the NBA with a winning record on the road.

But as the Celtics found out a year ago, winning on the road becomes a much tougher chore when the postseason arrives.

Away from the TD Garden last postseason, Boston compiled a record of just 1-7.

The year prior to that, Boston’s road record was 3-4.

In the four postseason runs Boston has had under Brad Stevens, the Celtics are just 5-16 in the playoffs.

As for the Pacers, this will be their fourth straight year getting to the playoffs.

And their road record, 2-8 overall, isn't much better.

So not only does Boston have the fact that they have home court advantage going in their favor, but they are also facing an Indiana team that hasn’t had much luck winning away from home in recent years in the playoffs.

Who is the one Celtic out of the rotation now who could be a factor in this series?

The playoffs have a way of shortening the rotation of the deepest team. For Boston, that trimming down is a lot easier unfortunately because of Marcus Smart’s oblique injury which will keep him out for the entire playoff series against Indiana and likely most if not all of the second round if Boston is fortunate enough to advance.

But if there’s a player who just might find his way on to the floor in this series and help Boston win a game or two, it’s Brad Wanamaker.

The 29-year-old rookie has been seldom-used this season, appearing in just 36 games this season.

However, he has seen a slight uptick in getting on the floor late in the season.

And to his credit, he has made the most of opportunity for increased playing time.

In the season finale at Washington, he scored a career-high 17 points in helping Boston rally for the win.

And earlier this month, he came off the bench in Boston’s blowout win at Indiana on April 5 to score nine points on 4-for-5 shooting.

But even more significant was what he provided defensively in that April 5 win over Indiana which for the Celtics in Game 1, will be a hot topic of discussion in the wake of Marcus Smart’s absence.

If the Celtics perimeter defenders aren’t playing as well as head coach Brad Stevens would like or he’s just looking to shake things up a bit, no one should be surprised if he turns to Wanamaker who in the April win over Indiana, had a defensive rating of 89.2 which was tops among all Boston players who logged at least 15 minutes of court time.

What’s the one statistic that’s most surprising between these two teams?

When you think of Boston and Indiana, often the first words that come to mind are gritty defenders. The Pacers and Celtics are ranked third and sixth, respectively, in defensive rating this season.

And when it comes to field goal percentage, the Pacers rank among the NBA’s best in that category as well.

But in the four regular season meetings between these two, three of which were won by Boston, one thing has become crystal clear: Boston has been an elite, equal opportunity shot-making bunch.

No statistic drives this point home more than when you look at the field goal shooting by the Celtics against the Pacers this season.

It’s not like one or two or even three guys have had it going at a high level when it comes to shot-making by the Celtics against the Pacers.

Actually, it has been six - yes, six - Celtics who have consistently found success and the bottom of the net, against Indiana this season.

Boston has six different players who have played in at least three of the four games against Indiana this year, who are all shooting better than 50 percent from the field.

The “low man” among the group is Kyrie Irving who has made 50.9 percent of his shots this season against the Pacers in addition to drilling 45 percent of his 3’s.

Aron Baynes, who has averaged 10.0 points per game against the Pacers (the only team he averaged double figures against this season by the way), leads the way by making 61.9 percent of his shots against Indy.

Along with Irving and Baynes, the other red-hot shooters against the Pacers this season includes Jayson Tatum (51 percent); Jaylen Brown (52.8 percent); Marcus Morris (52.4 percent) and Gordon Hayward (60.6 percent).

As for what Indiana does to counter that, well … they have just two players shooting 50 percent or better against Boston this season and that’s Myles Turner (51.9 percent) and Domantas Sabonis (60 percent).

Who is the one Pacers player that’s floating below the radar that should concern Boston?

Every playoff series has an assortment of wild card-type players who can dominate the game one night and completely disappear the next.

Tyreke Evans is that kind of player.

The former Rookie of the Year in Sacramento, Evans will be looked upon to provide a little bit of everything which plays to his strengths.

But the one thing Boston has to worry most about when it comes to Evans, is not allowing him to get into a rhythm scoring the ball.

Because this season, when he gets buckets it’s almost a given that the Pacers are going to get a win.

This season, Indiana has had 10 games in which Evans has scored 17 or more points.

Indiana’s record in those games?


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Celtics to face Bucks in second round of the NBA playoffs

Celtics to face Bucks in second round of the NBA playoffs

To nobody's surprise, the Boston Celtics are going to play the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round of the NBA Playoffs.

The Bucks, the East's No. 1 seed, had the best record in the NBA last season (60-22) and faced little resistance in their first-round matchup. They easily swept the Detroit Pistons in four games. The Pistons' star player, Blake Griffin, was far from healthy, and that played a role in the Bucks' series win.

This is the second year in a row that the Celtics will play the Bucks in the playoffs. Last year, the No. 2 seeded Celtics defeated the Bucks in a series that spanned seven games. The home team won every game in that series.

The Bucks will be a tough opponent for the Celtics. Potential league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo is a matchup nightmare, and he averaged 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 5.9 assists per game during the regular season. And around him, the Bucks have solid depth.

In their regular season series, the Celtics posted only a 1-2 record against the Bucks, winning their first meeting in November but coming up just short in their other two games. Antetokounmpo averaged 31 points per game against the Celtics, so slowing him down will be key to finding success in the series.

The Celtics will open on the road in this series, as the first two games will be in Milwaukee. The Celtics will have to ensure that they get off to a solid start and continue to fare well on the road, something they struggled to do last postseason (1-7 record in eight road games, 0-3 in Milwaukee).

BLAKELY: Celtics vs. Bucks playoff history>>>

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Al Horford at the center of it all in the postseason

Al Horford at the center of it all in the postseason

This probably should have been old hat for Al Horford. After all, he’s got 11 seasons of playoff experience and totaled 115 postseason games, or more than double that of ring-winning teammate Kyrie Irving.

And, yet, as Horford lounged on the scorer’s table inside BankersLife Fieldhouse, conducting a postgame radio interview after Sunday’s Game 4 triumph that completed Boston’s first-round sweep of the Pacers, he seemed to be savoring the moment. 

Behind him, Horford's family, including his father, Tito, who has been glued to Horford’s side in the infancy of this playoff journey, reveled with a “Believe in Boston” banner waving nearby.

Inside the Celtics’ locker room, after his typical postgame ice bath, Horford admitted this four-game sweep was particularly satisfying. Maybe it was the roller coaster nature of Boston’s maddening regular season. Maybe it’s all the work that has gone into simply keeping Horford upright, particularly with the knee soreness that has lingered for much of the season. Maybe it was the bad memories of losing to the Pacers twice in the first round of the playoffs during Horford’s time with the Atlanta Hawks.

Or maybe, nearing his 33rd birthday, Horford has simply learned to savor this all a bit more.

Not that age is slowing him down much. Yes, Horford endured one of the worst shooting performances of his career on Sunday, missing 15 of the 19 shots he hoisted. And, yet, in typical Horford fashion, he was still one of Boston’s most impactful players.

That’s the way it was all series. Horford shot 34 percent against the Pacers in Round 1 but you can make the case that he was the series MVP. Heck, his late-game swat of Bojan Bogdanovic in Game 2 might have singlehandedly prevented a loss, kept the momentum on Boston’s side, and allowed the Celtics to trek to Indiana oozing a confidence that helped the team make such short work of the Pacers.

The advanced numbers confirm Horford’s Round 1 impact. The Celtics owned a team-best net rating of plus-15.9 in the 138 minutes that Horford was on the floor, pairing a robust 109.7 offensive rating with an absurd 93.8 defensive rating.

But it’s the off-court numbers that scream his importance. In the 54 minutes that Horford was on the bench, Boston owned a net rating of minus-16.6. The team's offensive rating plummeted to 77.3 in that span. No other player’s off-court rating was even close (next lowest: Gordon Hayward, minus-4.3).

In easier to digest numbers, the Celtics outscored the Pacers by a team-best 46 points with Horford on the court, and were outscored by a team-high 16 without him.

It’s not necessarily surprising that Horford’s play floated quietly below the radar. It always does. And while everyone from Irving to Jaylen Brown to Terry Rozier deserved the attention for their efforts in Round 1, it’s telling that Horford can have an uncharacteristically inefficient offensive series and still have the biggest impact.

Here’s what shouldn’t float under the radar: Horford might just be the most important player when the Celtics and Bucks clash in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

It seems likely that the Celtics will lean heavy on small-ball lineups against the Bucks, this after featuring two-big lineups with Aron Baynes throughout the Pacers series. By going small, the Celtics can try to exploit situations when Brook Lopez is matched up with Horford, forcing him out towards the 3-point line if the Celtics fire away like they typically have against Milwaukee.

Horford played only 69 minutes over two games against the Bucks this season but his on/off splits looked an awful lot like his first-round playoff numbers. The Celtics were plus-16.8 with Horford on the court (110.1 offensive, 93.3 defensive), but owned a net rating of minus-19.9 in three games and 75 total minutes without him.

The Bucks’ offense gets a jolt with Lopez on the court, giving them a 3-point threat and helping space the floor for Giannis Antetokounmpo. Milwaukee’s offensive rating dipped 8 points to a team-worst 106.2 when Lopez wasn’t on the court this season. But the Celtics can force the issue a bit by knocking down perimeter shots.

Going small would also mean that Horford will be forced to match up often with Antetokounmpo, who deserves the MVP for his two-way efforts on a team that was the NBA’s best over the course of 82 regular-season games. While Boston’s success will be dictated in large part by the team’s ability to contain Milwaukee’s role players, it will still be important to make Antetokounmpo work for his points (and avoid the supernova efforts in which he can singlehandedly will his team to victory).

The Celtics could then bring Baynes off the bench to limit Horford’s grind and this might be a series where Semi Ojeleye can add another stout body to throw at Antetokounmpo, something Stevens has done often in the past.

According to the NBA’s tracking data, Horford defended Antetokounmpo on 41 possessions over two regular-season games this season. The Greek Freak was 7-of-14 shooting for 16 points but Horford did a solid job keeping him off the free-throw line. The numbers weren’t particularly glossy for any of Boston’s defenders against Giannis. Ojeleye got 40 turns, allowing 19 points on 7-of-10 shooting with three shooting fouls. It’s notable that Marcus Smart might have enjoyed the most success (7 points on 2-of-6 shooting on 21 possessions). Boston will lean on its stable of switchy forward, particularly Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, and Marcus Morris, and hope to take away the easy stuff for Antetokounmpo (which means tightening up their turnover woes from Round 1, too).

But the brunt of the load will fall on Horford. If his importance isn’t always obvious, it’ll be on the full display in this series. And the Celtics desperately need another dose of Playoff Al if they are to maintain their momentum from Round 1.

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