Celtics' second unit delivers first-rate play to start the fourth quarter

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INDIANAPOLIS -- The way Kyrie Irving has dismantled the Indiana Pacers in the fourth quarter has been a thing of beauty for Celtics Nation. 

He has been a point-producing assassin, locked and loaded on putting away the Blue and Gold Pacers with seemingly one dagger of a shot after another. 

Still, Irving’s late-game heroics have been fueled in part by his fourth-quarter set-up men whose play to start the quarter, has made things a lot easier for Irving to thrive in the role as closer. 

And Game 3 was the latest example of Boston’s strong play to start the fourth laying the groundwork for a forceful finish that has the Celtics on the cusp of moving on to the second round after Friday night’s 104-96 win over the Pacers. 

The Celtics lead the best-of-seven series 3-0 with a chance to close it out on Sunday and move on to play the winner of the Milwaukee-Detroit series. 

Irving, who finished with a double-double of 19 points and 10 assists, had six points and a pair of assists in the decisive fourth quarter. 

But as good as he was in closing the game out, his teammates once again delivered at the start of the fourth to ensure that Irving’s return to action in the fourth - he usually spends at least four or so minutes at the start of the fourth on the bench - wouldn’t require him to lead a comeback but instead continue with the already strong play of the team’s second unit players who by and large are on the floor to start the fourth. 

Starters Al Horford and Jayson Tatum were joined by Terry Rozier, Gordon Hayward, and Marcus Morris to start the fourth quarter on Friday. 

They began the quarter with an 80-73 lead that, despite the Bankers Life Fieldhouse crowd being loud and rowdy, was still on solid ground when Irving returned with 8:49 to play and the lead stood at 84-78.

“Those guys have played in a lot of big games,” said Boston’s Brad Stevens. “We have a lot of faith in them.

Said Rozier: “We come into the game and we still play hard. It’s been a huge help for us.”

Morris echoed similar sentiments about the bench, which is a plus-9 in the three games at the start of the fourth quarter prior to Irving seeing his first action in the fourth. 

“We’re just trying to come out there and bring energy,” Morris told NBC Sports Boston of the second unit’s play to start the fourth. “We’re trying to impact the game every time we’re out there.”

Bench play has been among the strengths of the Celtics despite various players being in and out of the second unit for various reasons. 

Jaylen Brown, who has been one of the team’s more consistent reserves of late, has shifted to the starting lineup with Marcus Smart (torn oblique injury) being out for what’s likely to be at least another month. 

With the first unit, he went off for 23 points on 8-for-9 shooting in Game 3 in addition to grabbing seven rebounds. 

But even without Brown coming off the bench, Boston’s backups continue to make their presence felt in this series. 

“We have to go with the flow; it’s the playoffs,” Morris said. “We can’t sit and think about how everything has changed … the one thing we can do is go out and play hard and win the bench matchup because that’s big in the playoffs.”

“Guys being ready, doing what they do when they’re out on the court,” Hayward said. “We got a lot of guys that can play, do a lot of different things. We expect guys to step up in those moments.”

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