Chris Forsberg

How the high-octane Pacers could push Celtics in East Finals

Tyrese Haliburton's squad boasts the best offense in the postseason.

NBC Universal, Inc.

The Indiana Pacers rode a historic shooting performance to a Game 7 upset over the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden Sunday and now will trek to Boston to open the Eastern Conference finals on Tuesday night.

The Celtics know plenty well what the Pacers’ offense is capable of after playing five regular-season games against them this season. But even in shooting a ridiculous 67.1 percent on Sunday afternoon, the Pacers still had to fend off a feverish Knicks rally that ran out of gas after Jalen Brunson fractured his left hand.

The Pacers finished 17 games back of the Celtics in the East and barely avoided slipping into the play-in tournament at the finish line of the season. Still, their offensive firepower is undeniable. The Pacers would have set an NBA record for offensive rating this season at 120.5 if Boston hadn’t finished ahead of them at 122.2.

Indiana, having upset both Milwaukee and New York to open the postseason, owns the best offensive rating in the playoffs at 121.7 (Boston is second at 118.9). The question is whether its defense can hold up against a Boston team that has flexed its two-way muscle (the Celtics’ +12.8 net rating is best in the postseason and by 4.2 points over the next closest team).

How can the Pacers stress the Celtics in the East finals?

Defending Haliburton

Haliburton battled a cocktail of injuries, including an ankle sprain and a hamstring strain which cost him a total of 13 regular-season games. He’s cranked it back up in the postseason.

In seven games against the Knicks, Haliburton averaged 21.3 points while shooting 53.8 percent from the floor and 43.9 percent beyond the 3-point arc. He added seven assists against just 1.7 turnovers over 33.6 minutes per game. 

His scoring average dipped to 17.7 points in Indy’s three losses to the Knicks (versus 24.0 in the wins). His efficiency was there in the losses, but he just didn’t match the output. The Celtics must determine just how much effort they want to put into corralling Haliburton’s offense, versus shutting down his supporting cast.

A look at Boston’s primary defenders vs. Haliburton during the regular season: 

White and Holiday drew the bulk of the assignment and held up reasonably well. The midseason addition of Pascal Siakam will limit just how much the Celtics can necessarily utilize their wings like Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum to take reps on Haliburton.

The Nesmith Revenge Series

In the summer of 2022, after falling short of their title goals in the NBA Finals against the Warriors, the Celtics made Aaron Nesmith a centerpiece in a deal to acquire Malcolm Brogdon. It turns out Brogdon wasn’t the missing piece to getting Boston over the hump. And how ironic -- now the Celtics have to go through Nesmith with another chance to get back to the title stage.

Ultimately, the Celtics were able to move Brogdon as part of a package to acquire Holiday. Still, Nesmith has been a revelation in Indiana.

Given the runway to spread his wings, Nesmith has blossomed into a player with potential to impact both sides of the ball. The Pacers could confidently put him on Brunson last round, and in Game 7 on Sunday, Nesmith finished with 19 points on perfect 8-of-8 shooting over 28 minutes.

It feels inevitable that Nesmith will emerge as some sort of villain in this series. He plays with reckless abandon, and while him crashing into everything in sight was endearing when he was in green, it will now be maddening for Celtics fans as he ping-pongs off the Jays. Nesmith undoubtedly will find motivation against his former team.

Couple that with T.J. McConnell long being a Celtics antagonizer and you can feel your blood pressure rising before this series even tips.

The Pace Game

The Celtics will be in Circle City for Indy 500 weekend. And how fitting is that? The Pacers are going to see green flags throughout this series and will try to turn this series into a track meet.

The Pacers sit atop the playoff leaderboard averaging 87.8 shots per game, or 6.6 more than Boston’s playoff average. We know how much Joe Mazzulla obsesses over the margins, including winning the shot battle. The Pacers, despite that pace, are also excellent at taking care of the basketball and will make it tough for Boston to win that shot margin.

The question is whether the Pacers can play defense consistently enough to stay in a footrace with a Boston team that has more weapons than Indy has seen going against injury-ravaged teams in Milwaukee and New York.

Final Thoughts

The Celtics will be challenged in new ways in this series, but it’s hard not to feel like getting the No. 6 seed in the East finals is an advantageous draw.

Boston absolutely has to play better than it did at times in the past two rounds, especially after giving both the Heat and Cavs a brief jolt of life by dropping two Game 2s at home. The Pacers’ core is still thin on playoff experience and Boston must lean on all of its deep postseason treks.

The other wild card here: When does Kristaps Porzingis return during the East Finals? And is he healthy enough to help the Celtics accelerate to the winner’s circle?

Contact Us