After Pacers sweep, Celtics declare they're a changed team


INDIANAPOLIS — When Jayson Tatum’s two-handed slam in transition put the Celtics up double digits with 3:27 to go in Sunday’s Game 4, Jaylen Brown broke out a fictional angle broom and pretended to sweep up in front of the Boston bench. By the time Gordon Hayward’s 3-pointer dropped in the final minute, Brown had upgraded to a contractor's broom and started pushing a path onto the court.

Yes, the same Celtics who made the regular season an absolute adventure with their wildly inconsistent play finished off a four-game sweep of the gritty-but-starless Indiana Pacers on Sunday afternoon. Everything we thought we knew about the Celtics, they pretty much defied over the past four games. They showed mental toughness, they bought into roles and actually utilized their depth to their advantage, and — while there were a few spells of inconsistent play — they took advance of an obvious talent disparity and made their lives easy for a change with a rare sweep.

“We’re clicking at the right time,” said Tatum. “We look like the team everybody thought we would be. It took some ups and downs for us to get here. I like the way we look.”

A showdown with the Milwaukee Bucks — the East’s top seed and the NBA’s best team over the course of 82 regular-season games — will be set with Milwaukee’s next win. For at least a couple hours, the Celtics elected to savor the sweet nectar of the rare playoff sweep, particularly given all the questions that hounded them entering the playoffs a week ago.

Al Horford admitted there was satisfaction inside the Celtics locker room for what Boston did in Round 1. “We were happy,” said Horford. “Very happy. Very grateful. Really acknowledging that, we really put in the work, everyone, and we’re definitely enjoying this one tonight.”

Each game in this series had a different storyline, a different hero. Kyrie Irving and Horford were the anchors but a Boston team that struggled so mightily to maximize its depth during the regular season finally embraced its collective talents.

Heading into the postseason, many pleaded for a reduction in the minutes of Marcus Morris and Terry Rozier. This reporter’s Twitter timeline was jammed with suggestions like how Brad Wanamaker should take Rozier’s minutes, or how Stevens couldn’t let Morris shoot the team out of games in the postseason.

Never one to listen to the little busters, Rozier responded with a brilliant Round 1. He wasn’t Scary Terry from last year, the guy who was asked to help fill Irving’s scoring void. Rozier was asked to make defense and energy a priority after the team lost Marcus Smart in the final week of the regular season and Rozier embraced it. In Game 4, he was one of seven Celtics players in double figures for scoring, chipping in 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting.

"I’m really happy for [Rozier],” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. "For him to just stay the course all year and be ready for this time of year to make a big difference, kudos to him.”

Morris might have saved Boston with his scoring early in Game 1. He had a rough night in Game 2 while going scoreless on 0-for-8 shooting, but bounced back to average 14.5 points on 58 percent shooting in Games 3 and 4. That included 18 points on 7-of-11 shooting in Sunday’s clincher.

Consider this: The Celtics’ top 6 for on-court net rating in Round 1 were Horford (15.9), Rozier (14.5), Morris (13.5), Hayward (10.9), Tatum (7.3), and Irving (7.0).

Think about that. Irving didn’t even have a particularly dominating first round — though he most certainly had big nights and came up with clutch moments, and his presence alone might have ultimately been the difference — but the Celtics swept because of depth.

Irving seems reinvigorated by both Boston’s play and the playoff stage. He balanced being excited about the team starting to play to its potential with a caution of the challenge ahead.

"I enjoy series,” said Irving. "They’re really a test of who wants it more, but more importantly who’s going to be smarter down the stretch and who’s really going to will themselves when things aren’t going their way, and just staying the course. … 

"It’s just, you hit the reset button. You can obviously take some momentum going into it and be proud of the performance you put on, but a week later it doesn’t even matter. So you’ve gotta prove it once again. You’ve gotta prove why you were successful last series. You’ve gotta prove how ready you are for that next step because it’s closer and closer to a goal that other teams are trying to get as well. So it’s just a sense of maturity. So I think that for the guys on this team, enjoy it the first few days then we go back to practice and get locked back in.”

There’s a lot for these Celtics to be optimistic about. That’s quite a departure from a week ago when these playoffs first tipped and it was fair to question Boston’s potential based on what we had seen over the previous six months. Over the past eight days:

* Irving reaffirmed his status as a playoff crunch-time killer.

* Horford put together a mesmerizing defensive series, giving the Celtics a chance in all four games because of his work on the back line.

* Brown embraced a give-the-game-what-it-needs approach, accepted the challenge of chasing Bojan Bogdanovic in the absence of Smart, and emerged as one of Boston’s key contributors.

* Tatum found some of his playoff mojo from last season, attacked the basket consistently, and took on the challenge of being a go-to scorer when Boston needed him.

* Hayward brought consistent defensive intensity and a desire to make the right play. His season-long quest to return to “Utah Gordon” could be encapsulated in Game 4 when Myles Turner dunked loudly on him and Hayward spent the rest of the game furiously extracting revenge while looking a lot like his old All-Star self.

* Morris and Rozier showed exactly why Danny Ainge built a deep roster and kept them part of the mix even when Boston’s depth seemed to hurt the team at times during the regular season.

Now it’s fair to wonder if the Celtics have upset potential in Round 2. It won’t be easy as the Bucks are not the first-time-in-the-pool Bucks of a year ago. Boston’s success might ultimately hinge on whether they can limit Milwaukee’s supporting cast because nothing about what we saw this season suggests that Giannis Antetokounmpo isn’t going to dominate. Taking away the Middletons and Bledsoes of the world will be more important than trying to shut down an unstoppable freak. But there will be ample time to dissect the matchup ahead.

In the rearview, it's also fair to wonder if the Celtics feasted on an inferior opponent that was a shell of itself in the aftermath of the Victor Oladipo injury. But the Pacers were absolutely gritty, they made the Celtics work, and Boston played an encouraging brand of ball overall.

And, before they departed Indiana, you could tell there was a newfound confidence and little doubt about where they now stand.

"The regular season is done with. We’re not that same team,” said Morris. "Guys understand the goal ahead and it shows on the court. We pick each other up every game. Every game someone else is stepping up. Our depth has been a strong point for us, and we’re just getting the wins.

“We get some time to scout whichever time we’re going to play, time to rest our bodies, and mentally. Down the stretch we’re excited, man, to play I guess Milwaukee and play our best basketball.”

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