– by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief
BOSTON — Early in the third quarter of today’s Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals inside of the house that Larry Bird was instrumental in building, Larry Legend himself, in marking a rare appearance back in Beantown, was displayed on the Jumbotron before standing and acknowledging his presence to the fans to uproarious applause. In the midst of honoring basketball royalty, the 2019 iteration of the Celtics were in the middle of a decisive run to close out a game that resembled many of the physical, rough-and-tumble playoff contests that Bird’s teams came out on top many times during his career.
Boston’s defense tightened the screws in one of its best defensive performances of the season, an 84-74 victory over the Indiana Pacers in the playoff opener for both teams at TD Garden. The Celtics held the Pacers to just 33.3 percent shooting while outscoring Indiana 26-8 during the decisive third quarter after entering intermission down seven.
“This is not a series for the timid, we’ve known that going in,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens in describing the physicality of today’s contest. “[Indiana] is is a heck of a team with a heck of a coach and the minute you let your foot off the gas or you don’t play the right way you’re going to get beat.”
The Celtics put their collective feet on the throats of the Pacers’ offense in the third in winning their third game against the Pacers in the span of 17 days (two occurring late in the regular season), holding Indiana to just 2-of-19 shooting and forcing them to miss all eight of their three-pointers in the frame.
Boston’s defensive masterclass came off the heels of a first half in which the Pacers took the Celtics out of their rhythm of offense, with Boston making just 13 of their 40 attempts from the field (32.5 percent) in opening up a 45-38 lead at halftime.
“[The Pacers] guarded their butts off and that looked like a 1980s playoff game with the score,” Stevens said. “It’s tough, those guys are tough and physical and for us to say we were just tight, and we missed shots would not be fair to them. I thought that they were tremendous defensively and they did some things a little differently then they had in the last two games in a lot of ways.”
Boston was able to get the pace quickened in the third quarter while in the midst of locking down the Pacers on the other end, as the Celtics scoring 10 fast-break points in the quarter. Kyrie Irving had eight points, three rebounds and three assists in the quarter, part of his game-high 20 points. Marcus Morris Sr. also had 20 points, including 12 in the first quarter, to help Boston keep pace in a period that ended tied at 20.
Defensively, I knew that our length [and] our versatility were going to be a positive for us, especially in this series,” Irving said. “We know them very well. We played them four times throughout the year. We know each other pretty well. Defensively I knew we were going to be in the right spots. It was just matching that effort, being smart about it, knowing who we want to gap off of. Really just focusing on the game plan. Just doing the right things.”
Indiana, who came into this game 15-19 since the season-ending knee injury to leading scorer Victor Oladipo in late January, only had one player scorer in double figures, Bojan Bogdanovic scoring 12 points on 4-of-11 shooting. Each of Indiana’s other four starters, Thaddeus Young, Myles Turner, Wesley Matthews and Darren Collison, did not make more than three field goals as they combined to shoot 11-for-33. Cory Joseph came off the bench to lead the Pacers with 14 points as Indiana hit just 6 of their 27 threes and only 12-of-21 from the free throw line.
“Yeah, [the starters] played most of that third quarter. As I mentioned, we held Boston, I don’t know if we held them, but they scored 84 points,” said Pacers head coach Nate McMillan. “I don’t know if Boston has scored 84 points the entire season. So defensively we did some good things. We did some good things offensively in that first half. We made shots. The third quarter, we started off as I mentioned with two turnovers. We had open looks that we did not down. I thought we lost a little confidence in that third quarter and they got the momentum and really never let that go.”