It counts only one way in the standings, which makes the 10th straight road loss an especially difficult one for the Indiana Pacers, who came up one play short on a few separate occasions in a tough loss to the Boston Celtics. The ramifications of the game made it a costly, not quite detrimental loss, dropping them to fifth in the East, at least temporarily surrendering home court to the very team they fell short to tonight.
That it became a thrilling back-and-forth game late is a testament to Indiana’s resiliency, while also being an indictment to why they keep losing on the road. The Pacers weren’t even in the game in the first quarter, quickly falling behind by nine, allowing Boston to control every aspect of the game.
Boston pushed their lead to double figures in the quarter, outworking Indiana on the glass, shooting well from three point range, and capitalizing off of Pacers turnovers. The one advantage Indiana did have in that quarter was getting to the line, which they squandered often, going 6-10 in the quarter.
The Pacers got a big second quarter boost from T.J. Leaf and the second unit, with Leaf scoring eight straight as part of a 14-2 run that briefly gave them a 41-40 lead. After finally getting into the lead, the Pacers allowed eight straight from the Celtics on back-to-back Jayson Tatum threes.
Indiana stayed within reach even after that, but the inability to keep Boston off of the three point line nearly blew the game wide open. They surrendered two more as the Celtics pushed back up by eight. After cutting the lead to three, it was Al Horford’s turn to push Boston out of reach, scoring five straight, giving them a 63-55 lead with 34 seconds left.
With the game slipping out of grasp, Thaddeus Young hit a big three and Bojan Bogdanovic drew a foul on a three point shot. Bogdanovic missed the final of his three attempts, but Indiana ahead made it a three point game going into the half, matching Boston’s 35 first quarter points with 35 of their own in the second.
The attempt to avoid a third quarter collapse didn’t go too well for the Pacers early as Irving took control of the game, scoring the first 10 of the quarter for the Celtics with Aron Baynes putting the capper on a 12-2 run that put Boston back up by 11. While Indiana struggled to keep Boston from hitting timely threes, they themselves were apt at doing just that.
Bogdanovic and Myles Turner brought Indiana back into the game with back-to-back threes, kickstarting a 20-6 run that put Indiana up by three on two more threes from Bogdanovic and Turner. The Pacers led by two with 39 seconds left in the third, forcing a turnover. It was at this point that the first of the what-ifs cropped up as Tyreke Evans ran the clock down, missing a makeable layup, followed by a makeable tip missed by Turner.
In the fourth, the teams traded the lead through the first four minutes, with Domantas Sabonis keeping the game within a single possession and Evans hitting a corner jumper to make a 98-97 deficit. Leaf followed up a Evans miss on the following possession to put the Pacers back up. After Evans was blocked at the rim, Sabonis gathered the rebound and bullied in for a big time bucket.
Except the basket didn’t count. Sabonis had been whistled for an offensive foul, his fifth. On the play, Sabonis cleared space, as lightly as possible for someone playing in the post, drawing the whistle in a game where the officiating fluctuated unsuccessfully between “let ‘em play” and “call it tight.”
Boston took control of the game by scoring the next seven, giving them a six point lead in an otherwise four point game. The Pacers refused to go away, steadily erasing the lead with six straight on their next three possessions. That kind of back and forth went on the rest of the way, with Indiana outworking Boston to keep pace.
Marcus Smart pushed Boston up by three on a deep three that beat the shot clock as Indiana responded on a Darren Collison three. Irving would make it a two point game again favoring the Celtics, but Indiana’s effort was beyond reach, coming up the first of two monstrous hustle plays, keeping the possession alive to set up Young for the game tying layup with 1:19 to go.
After getting a stop, the Pacers got Young free with 42 seconds remaining only to have him miss a gimme at the rim for another costly what-if. They would again outwork the Celtics by forcing a key turnover to give them a shot at going back up with 28 seconds to go.
Out of the timeout however, the Pacers showed little in the way of inventiveness, running the clock down without any ball movement, working hard to get Collison a decent look at a jumper that he would miss. It wasn’t an awful shot for Collison, but they didn’t seem to be too focused in upping the chance of a make, coming off as settling with 10 seconds on the clock.
What the Pacers had appeared to want to do defensively as Boston came out of their timeout was in disarray when Brad Stevens opted to bring the ball out well in the back court as opposed to the traditional half court. This led to immediate confusion by the Pacers, with Turner especially looking for guidance as Horford stood at the half court.
The confusion drew Turner out to guard Horford, who quickly flipped the ball to Irving. Indiana failed to trap in the corner, giving Irving free reign to the rim with Turner pulled away, setting up an easy game winning layup with a half a second left. When it was over, the scoreboard read a heartbreaking result of 114-112, advantage Celtics.
For the game, the Pacers shot 46.7% for the game, nearly five points lower than the Celtics, but managed to stay in the game by hitting 12 threes to Boston’s 13. Unfortunately, the inability to capitalize at the line could’ve easily flipped the score in their favor. The Pacers were just 16-23 from the line, but also struggled in other areas, getting blocked at the rim five times and got ran all over by Boston, getting outscored 26-8 in the fast break.
Bogdanovic led the way for the Pacers with 27 points, playing up to his recent stellar play with four threes and a game high nine free throw attempts (making seven). However, he turned his ankle with four minutes remaining in the fourth. While he didn’t exit the game, it could be an issue to keep an eye on as Indiana enters their final six games.
Turner had three threes of his own as part of his 15 point, 11 rebound effort. Turner was a big part of the comeback effort in the third, scoring 12 in the third, giving the Pacers the lead three separate times in the quarter. Young had 18 points, coming up with some big time hustle plays and makes, despite the miss late in the fourth.
The only starter to not reach double figures was Wesley Matthews, who was hip checked early in the game. He returned, but went just 1-5 from the floor, dropping him to 25% shooting for his last four, including 4-19 from three point range. That’s a slump that will have to change if Indiana hopes to compete moving forward, especially when both Sabonis and Leaf gave Indiana rare three point makes.
Sabonis finished with 11 points and eight rebounds, but did not return following his fifth foul. Him not returning wasn’t a big surprise given how well the starting lineup played down the stretch, but to see him go out on the tough offensive foul after what would’ve been his third field goal of the fourth quarter may have been the different in Indiana’s ability to ultimately capitalize on the win.
Leaf finished with 12 points in 12 minutes, coming up with three of his four rebounds on the offensive glass. He was a crucial boost to the Pacers early in the second quarter, which highlights the necessity for Nate McMillan to be fluid with his rotations in the upcoming playoff series with the Celtics. Both he and Aaron Holiday can offer a lot of positives for the Pacers.
To have trust in those young guys may be the difference in wins and losses this postseason especially as Cory Joseph continues to shoot below the Mendoza Line. In the last 11 games, Joseph has shot just 18.5% from the floor. Whereas Indiana’s second unit needs to be a difference maker in games like these, shooting this poorly simply adds to the recent offensive struggles and pain in close road losses to Denver and now Boston.
There was enough tonight to give Indiana enough hope that they can absolutely compete in a series with Boston, but regaining home court will be crucial when looking at the possibility of Indiana continuing to come up short at the TD Garden. Unfortunately, they surrendered home court for the time being with the loss as the Celtics take over on the head-to-head tiebreaker.
In the meantime, Indiana will close out the season with four of six at home, five of which coming against Eastern playoff teams or playoff hopefuls. That begins tomorrow night against the Orlando Magic on the second night of a back-to-back. Indiana is 1-2 against the Magic this year, who sit just half a game out of the eighth spot.