Why Pacers were exactly what Celtics needed

Nick Friar
December 12, 2019 - 6:30 am
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The Celtics have been riding high for a while. Before Wednesday’s game, their last loss was in Brooklyn in the second game of a home-and-home series which sandwiched Thanksgiving Day. It didn’t exactly have the same vibe as Wednesday’s matchup with the Pacers, who remain one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, even though they’re still without Victor Oladipo.

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When they get Oladipo back — and he’s mentally over his injury — Indiana is going to be a serious problem for everyone. But the Pacers didn’t need him to knock off the Celtics 122-117 on Wednesday. (For a complete recap of the Celtics' loss, click here.)

Not having Marcus Smart was, obviously, an issue for Boston. Same goes for Robert Williams when you’re facing both Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis.

And that’s where things start for the Celtics.

Brad Stevens has plenty of switchable wings on defense, but the post has been Boston’s problem from Day 1. Trade season is right around the corner and this is the one area they need to address.

Because, as much as he’s done well, when Smart is a guy you’re relying on to guard bigs, it’s a problem.

He protects the rim by playing tough defense on the perimeter and taking charges. Being able to handle a big in the block is a bonus, not something that should be expected.

Williams is much improved and Stevens has done well with identifying which big is providing the greatest impact on a nightly basis. But there isn’t one player between Williams, Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter who the Celtics can expect to consistently be “the guy” down low.

Against some teams, this isn’t an issue. Having a ton of wings who can handle slightly longer, but also athletic opponents is important with the way roster construction has evolved. But the Celtics need a big guy who can get physical. Theis and Williams are decent defensively, and the latter could become something more someday, but they’re best in short minutes right now — if the Celtics are trying to give themselves the best chance possible at winning a title.

Even with the lack of rim protection, the Celtics should have won Wednesday’s game. They’ve been a second-half team to this point in the season and uncharacteristically lost control late. The Celtics had some costly turnovers late. It happens.

That being said, what can’t happen is Gordon Hayward makes half his shots but only takes eight. Yes, he left the game early, but there were other opportunities in his 25 minutes.

Also, Jaylen Brown can’t fall for a Malcolm Brogdon pump fake on a jumper from the elbow. This isn’t an attack on the mid-range game, but that’s a shot you’re OK with giving up more often than not. Plus, Brown had five fouls. Why is he getting off the ground there?

“That was just a dumb play by me,” Brown said. “Good play by Brogdon. Smart play by him. Just a dumb play by me.

“I think (the Pacers) set the tone for the game. They were a physical team and we didn’t match it, and we were trying to play from behind. And then the refs were just calling the game accordingly. We got to do a better job of setting the tone (and) physicality.”

Brown played very well, there’s no doubt about that (18 points, 58% shooting, eight rebounds and eight assists). But tough opponents — especially when you’re playing well — are going to do anything to get you off your rhythm. He has to recognize that, because he has a target on his back now. Brown isn’t some well-kept secret anymore.

Jayson Tatum’s 4-for-13 night (2-for-8) from three, of course, wasn’t helpful. But it’s the same stuff with him. Some nights, Tatum can’t find his shot. He’s usually good for a missed layup or two (or more). He’s there some games, and others he’s not.

More than anything, this loss should show the Celtics good, well-coached teams are going to make life immensely difficult. Being able to hang with the Clippers and beat both the Heat and Nuggets recently doesn’t mean the Celtics are going to coast against other good teams simply because Boston is a few spots ahead in the standings.

Kemba Walker went off for 44 points in the loss, setting a new season-high and personal-best in a Celtics uniform. He went 16-for-28 (57.1%) from the floor and 7-for-15 (46.7%) from three. He also had seven assists.

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