INDIANAPOLIS -- Earlier this week, Indiana Pacers coach Nate McMillan caught a few of us off-guard when he said the Celtics are still the team to beat in the East.
We all chuckled it off as gamesmanship; McMillan’s goal being to lather on the compliments in hopes that it’ll maybe lead to the Celtics buying into that thinking, the kind that in many ways got them in the jam they’ve been in as they continue to fight for home court in the first round of the playoffs.
Still, after seeing how the Celtics dominated the Pacers 117-97 on Friday night, McMillan...he might be onto something.
Because if the Celtics can play relatively close to the level we saw on Friday night, there are few teams - if any - in the Eastern Conference that can withstand that level of performance at both ends of the floor and expect to emerge victorious in a seven-game series.
Of course, when it comes to the Celtics, every strong game has to be taken with a cautiously optimistic, skeptical eye because we have seen them show signs of greatness only to fall flat on their faces and leave their fan bases deflated.
Still, the past couple of games, well, it seems different.
More than anything else, the Celtics were on the road against teams that needed the win a lot more than they did.
Those teams were playing in their buildings, with their fans cheering them on, hoping they could do what most teams do at home late in the season - find ways to win.
And in come the Celtics, a team viewed by most as a disappointment in terms of where they are relative to where so many - including themselves - though they would be at this point in the season.
Instead of falling into the all-too-predictive narrative of losing to teams that want to win more than they do, the Celtics have seemingly found a stride of sorts that has allowed them to play the kind of basketball we thought we would have seen months ago.
Offensively, they come at teams like a blitzkrieg in delivering the kind of offensive damage that can overwhelm the best of defenses - ask the Pacers who saw this up close and personal on Friday night.
Kyrie Irving is the player that most teams fear when they face the Celtics.
But on Friday, Irving wasn’t the first or second-leading scorer for Boston.
Carrying the torch offensively most of the game was Jayson Tatum, who led the team with 22 points to go with seven rebounds.
And not too far behind him was Gordon Hayward, who returned to his home state of Indiana and delivered a perfect 9-for-9 shooting night to finish with 21 points.
“We needed a game like this,” Tatum told NBC Sports Boston.
Because as much as we talk about Boston’s depth, their ability to start stringing together big games on the same night from multiple players is what makes them such a scary playoff foe.
And for putting together a game like we saw on Friday night against the team they are most likely to play in the first round, the message is clear.
Home or away, prepare for the Green Team Takeover.
Of course, coach Brad Stevens, while acknowledging his team played well, did his best to also remind folks that the Pacers probably didn’t play one of their best games, either.
But here’s the thing about that.
Why did the Pacers fail to compete in the biggest game of the season, the game that they made it abundantly clear that they were approaching as a must-win, playoff-type game?
The reason was obvious.
They didn’t have a choice.
Boston did exactly what elite teams are supposed to do when challenged which is to put your foe on their back as soon as possible.
The game was relatively close for a quarter and a half, but from the midway point of the second quarter until the final horn sounded, Boston owned the Pacers.
And there was nothing they could do about it.
While it’s easy to look ahead and say that things could be potentially different in the actual playoffs, with the Pacers likely playing better while the Celtics maybe won’t be as efficient as their 52.2 percent shooting from the field indicated.
But Boston did more than just win the game and with it the head-to-head series.
They came into Indiana’s house, took a game that the Pacers needed more than they did, and did so with little emotion or fanfare.
They did what you’re supposed to do if you’re planning to be the last team standing when all is said and done, a goal that the Celtics set out to accomplish at the start of the season.
And games like the one we saw Friday night remind us that that goal is far more attainable than Boston’s regular-season record might suggest.
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