INDIANAPOLIS — Kudos to Gordon Hayward.
After his coach came to the podium and reasoned that the Celtics being forced to rally after coughing up yet another double-digit lead might have been good for this group, Hayward deadpanned, " I think it would have been nicer to win by 20.”
So very true. But beggars can’t be choosers. Instead of puking on themselves for the fifth time in 11 days, the Celtics managed to fight back for a change, this after the host Pacers rallied from 16 down in the fourth quarter to take a late lead.
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It was Hayward who huddled his teammates after Domantas Sabonis’ three-point play put Indiana up three with 2:14 to go and, with Bankers Lifehouse rattling with energy, somehow snapped the Celtics out of their defensive malaise.
"Gordon was talking. That's very rare,” quipped Marcus Smart, who could be seen conducting a defensive orchestra before the Pacers’ last-gasp to force overtime.
It was Smart, too, who chased down a less-than-perfect inbounds pass and got fouled with 7 seconds to go to help ice the game. That shouldn’t seem like an achievement but, given the fact that Boston coughed up two wins in its previous three games because of an inability to inbound and dribble out the clock, it’s above-the-fold information.
Or, as fan site CelticsBlog properly roasted the team with its postgame headline: “Celtics successfully inbound ball, beat the Pacers 114-111.”
For all the good Boston did in this game, the Celtics still had some rough moments. This team continues to be terrible at closing out quarters, the bench didn’t exactly inspire any new confidence, and Boston can fall in love with ISO ball a little too easily when shots are falling early.
But a win is a win is a win this time of year. The Celtics clawed within three games of the Toronto Raptors in the quest for a No. 2 seed that may have slipped away with the recent rough patch, but remains at least a possibility given the head-to-head matchup looming March 20 in Toronto.
More importantly, the Celtics avenged an early-season loss here in Indiana, a team that projects as the most likely playoff opponent — likely in the East’s 3-6 matchup, though Philadelphia currently sits in that sixth spot, a half-game behind a Pacers team playing better as Victor Oladipo shakes off more rust.
Jayson Tatum slipped on a purple armband, after a one-game departure from the accessory, and returned to his 30-point scoring ways. Daniel Theis had another excellent night and probably saved Hayward some grief about being too passive by knocking down a big-time 3 to tie the score with 1:43 to play. Smart had a couple of absurd first-half dimes and muscled home a key go-ahead layup while sandwiched by Sabonis and Myles Turner with 49.7 seconds to play.
"I think anybody would like to have it more comfortable,” said Smart. "But it's getting close to that time where you're going to have to win games like this and you're going to have to learn how to win games like this. So, for us, tonight was a good win and it couldn't have come at a better time, especially with the week we've been having.”
The Celtics formally clinched a playoff spot with Tuesday the win. For a team with 17 title banners, it’s no reason to print t-shirts and hats, but try telling Kemba Walker it doesn’t matter. He signed with Boston last summer in large part because he had only tasted the playoffs twice in eight seasons in Charlotte.
Walker labored through another rough shooting night, making only 3 of 12 shots. He didn’t attempt a single shot inside the free-throw line, the latest indicator that he still lacks confidence in a sore knee. Walker has struggled to finish near the rim over the past month-plus and didn’t seem in any hurry to give it a whirl against the Pacers’ frontline, including Turner, who spoiled Romeo Langford’s Indiana homecoming by swallowing up a dunk attempt.
Then again, Hayward, the true mayor of Circle City, protested that New Albany native Langford was, "from Kentucky, basically.” Hayward was spectacular back on familiar turf, finishing with 27 points on 10-of-19 shooting with 10 rebounds, five assists, two steals, a block, and a finger-wag at the vocal minority who have suggested that he should be moved to a reserve role to aid a bench that has slumped as the Celtics elevate players such as Smart to fill first-unit voids.
And while Hayward was right about how it would have been more encouraging if Boston won in lopsided fashion, we’ll admit that Stevens seemed genuinely encouraged that his team didn’t allow itself to fold again.
"That's the thing we said when we called timeout — we need this,” said Stevens. "As uncomfortable as it is right now, in the moment, we need it.
"So we have 18 games left after this. We're far from a finished product, but we’ve got to get there quickly. We've got to start ascending soon. So, it was important to go through a night like tonight.”
These Celtics are not perfect. It’s part of their charm. But they can be a whole lot better than what they’ve shown the past two weeks. We’re left yearning to see what the ceiling is for this team when fully healthy.
And, ultimately, that’s all that matters. Not win totals or seedings. If Boston’s top five isn’t healthy and playing their best basketball when the playoffs arrive, they won’t last long. But if they have all their horses, and they grind through rough patches like they did Tuesday, then they’ve got as good a chance as anyone to make some noise.
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