How the Celtics absolutely dominated on defense in their first postseason test

Nick Friar
April 14, 2019 - 5:34 pm

Had Brad Stevens not pulled the Celtics impact players in the closing minutes of Game 1 the Pacers might have set a new record for fewest points scored in the second half of an NBA playoff game. The Pacers mustered up 29, so the Utah Jazz still hold the record with 23 second-half points in Game 3 of the 1998 NBA Finals.

It’s an obscure stat, though representative of the Celtics performance on the defensive end in their 84-74 win on Sunday.

Indiana’s big drop came in the third quarter when they only managed to score eight points. By the end of the second half, the Pacers only made 23.7 percent of their field goal attempts (9 of 38) after going 19-for-46 from the floor (41.3 percent) in the first half. The Celtics went on to finish with a 77.1 defensive rating, their second-lowest defensive rating in franchise history.

“It’s playoff time,” Marcus Morris said. “The attention to detail has to go higher, we know that they like to pick and roll. We know that they have good bigs that can shoot . . . We just tried to cut that down. We did a great job with our bigs protecting the rim pretty well, we rebounded pretty well and got out on the break.”

It was evident the Pacers wanted to target Kyrie Irving on the pick and roll early and often. When there wasn’t an opening directly off the screen, Indiana tried to take advantage of the size mismatch in the post. After a few successful attempts, Irving slipped past Wesley Matthews on the block to force a turnover. From there, the Pacers weren’t as quick to attack Boston’s star guard.

“I just try to be really aggressive on the ball, be in the right spots,” Irving said. “I had some costly fouls here and there that could have gone either way, but I just want to stay aggressive and really be the head of the snake and stay aggressive on the ball. So, defensively I know that’s where we make our mark and when we’re going out on transition and getting stops, that’s when we’re at our best.”

The defense may have reigned supreme in Game 1, but it has not been Boston’s calling card by any stretch in 2018-19. The Celtics identity has been their offense, which only scored 100 points or fewer nine times this season — with all nine of those games resulting in a loss prior to Sunday’s win.

What’s more surprising is the Celtics had this showing without Marcus Smart, one of the league’s best defenders. Between the defensive rotations and Boston winning the battle on the glass 55-42, the Celtics may have finally figured out what they need to do on the defensive end going forward.

“I think we have the capability to really defend because of all our versatility and guys can guard multiple positions,” Gordon Hayward said. “If we guard like that we give ourselves a chance, and we can also start the break, too.”