Chris Forsberg

Knicks or Pacers? Scouting Celtics' potential East Finals opponents

Boston will have its hands full one way or another in this series.

NBC Universal, Inc.

For the second time this postseason, the Boston Celtics are in the clubhouse having expeditiously closed out an opponent and once again are waiting for their next-round opponent to be determined.

So who should the Celtics desire to see next, the Indiana Pacers or New York Knicks?

The Knicks own a 3-2 series lead over the Pacers heading into Friday night’s Game 6 in Indiana. The Celtics probably wouldn’t mind if, for the second straight round, their next opponent had to slog through a seven-game series with a quick turnaround to the start of the next round.

The Eastern Conference Finals tip off Tuesday night at TD Garden. Boston’s opponent would be playing its third game in three cities in five days if there’s a Game 7 between the Pacers and Knicks on Sunday in New York. 

Regardless of the opponent, that team will be quite familiar for Boston. Because of the inaugural In-Season Tournament, the Celtics played both of their potential opponents five times during the 2023-24 campaign.

Boston was 4-1 against the Knicks, including an opening-night triumph at Madison Square Garden. New York did win an April meeting with a new-look roster including OG Anunoby in a game where Jalen Brunson erupted for 39 points

The Celtics posted a 3-2 mark against Indiana this season. Those high-scoring matchups (average point total of 245.8) included the amped Pacers winning an IST semifinal on their home turf. Despite the extra regular-season matchup, the two teams have not met since January 30.

The second-seeded Knicks were dominant at the finish line of the season, surging to the No. 2 seed. Pacers star Tyrese Haliburton battled some injury woes as the Pacers slid to No. 6. While both teams present unique challenges for the Celtics, the Knicks are maybe the more prickly foe for a handful of reasons:

The Brunson Factor

There’s no denying how good Jalen Brunson has been this postseasn — and for the entirety of the 2023-24 season.

Brunson, the son of Salem High School product and former Celtics point guard Rick Brunson, finished fifth in MVP balloting, one spot ahead of Tatum. He averaged 27.4 points against the Celtics in their five meetings this season and can put a ton of stress on Boston’s defense. He scored his 39 points on just 23 shots in that April meeting.

The Celtics have multiple options to throw at Brunson, but like Donovan Mitchell last round, there are simply times when you have to live with tough shot making.

A look at how Boston’s top defenders fared against Brunson, per NBA tracking, during five regular-season meetings:

Both White and Holiday did a solid job limiting Brunson’s scoring when they were able to stay in front of him. But Brunson really feasted on Boston when going at big men in switches.

The Porzingis numbers leap off the page, if only with concern that Porzingis might not be at full health coming back from a calf injury. It puts even more pressure on Boston’s guards to stay in front of Brunson. 

The flip side, though, is that the Celtics were able to exploit Brunson’s size at the other end. White, Holiday, Tatum, Porzingis, Brown, and Horford were a combined 26-of-45 (57.7 percent) shooting with Brunson as the primary defender, per NBA tracking.

MSG advantage?

The Knicks are 5-1 at home so far this postseason, with their lone loss being the Philadelphia 76ers' ridiculous Tyrese Maxey-fueled comeback in Game 5 of New York’s opening-round series.

The MSG environment has been truly bonkers this postseason. From loud New York fans starved for postseason success, to a cavalcade of Knicks alumni like John Starks and Stephon Marbury ready to stumble out beyond the baseline every time Brunson makes a layup, to Spike Lee and all the celebrities ringing the court, there is an undeniable energy that permeates the world’s most famous arena.

Celtics teams of the past embraced that stage. Remember Paul Pierce taking a bow at MSG after one particularly clutch performance? The modern Celtics will have to block out the noise that comes with playing in New York. 

Alas, at least the environments will be better than the late-arriving crowd in Miami, or the tell-us-when-to-the-get-loud fans in Cleveland.

Relentless on the glass

The Knicks have crashed the glass with a fervor this postseason. Through 11 games, New York has rebounded a ridiculous 37.5 percent of its misses. That’s 5.5 percent higher than the next closest team (Dallas, 32.0) and 9.1 percent higher than Boston’s postseason mark.

There will be at least one sequence in every game where the Knicks generate multiple shots with Isaiah Hartenstein back-tipping everything he can get his fingers on and Josh Hart a magnet for misfires. That duo has combined for 6.6 offensive rebounds per game this postseason. 

The Celtics quietly have been the best defensive rebounding team in the postseason, gathering 80.5 percent of opponent misses. Playing an undersized Miami team and a Cleveland squad missing Jarrett Allen helped that cause. Limiting New York to one shot and winning the shot margin will be far more difficult this round.

Health, minutes will be a factor

The Knicks lost Mitchell Robinson earlier this postseason and Anunoby is currently sidelined with a hamstring injury. New York’s defense swarmed opponents after acquiring Anunoby but his health looms large over this series.

Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau, famous for leaning heavy on his core players, has taxed his starters. Hart played 40-plus minutes in each of the team’s first nine playoff games, including a stretch where he averaged 47.5 minutes per game over a seven-game span and suggested divine intervention was carrying him.

Two five-game series have afforded the Celtics fresh legs, and they’ll need to keep the tempo cranked throughout a potential series against the Knicks. 

For Boston, the health of Porzingis, who seemingly would have plenty of motivation against the team that drafted him, will be a key storyline as well.

Pacers in focus

The Celtics know full well what a motivated Pacers team can accomplish. Indiana shifted to a different gear during that IST tournament and, while we’re not trying to compare the stage, it’s a simple reminder that Indiana is capable of playing at a high level when the stakes go up.

The question is whether a younger Pacers squad would be ready for the conference finals stage. Brown and Tatum have made this round basically an annual checkpoint and they know what it takes to succeed in this round. 

Still, the Pacers are undeniably talented. If Haliburton is healthy, he’s given Boston fits. The addition of Pascal Siakam helps the Pacers at both ends. Aaron Nesmith feels like the wild card with both his defense and the way he routinely flies around causing chaos. He would have motivation against a Boston team that dealt him out for Malcolm Brogdon in the summer of 2022.

Much like when we were pondering Orlando and Cleveland in Round 1, the Cavaliers seemed like a more daunting opponent because of the presence of a player like Mitchell. The same feels true here. The Knicks and Pacers present challenges, but it’s Brunson who makes New York feel like a slightly more daunting draw.

Contact Us