Playoff basketball is almost upon us and the Indiana Pacers will face off against the Boston Celtics in the opening round. It is difficult to win in the playoffs without a star player, but this tight-knit Pacers team is looking to defy the odds.
Having an elite defense has been what has set the tone for the Pacers this season. They managed to allow a league-best average of 104.7 opponent points during the regular season. Managing to produce such defensive results was a truly impressive feat for a team that was without its reigning All-Defensive first team guard for 46 games.
Those strong defensive results did not carry over in their four regular season matchups with Boston as they allowed an average of 116.8 points. Only the Golden State Warriors managed to average a higher volume of points against the Pacers this season.
The defensive struggles that Indiana experienced against the Celtics starts with the fact that they are led by talented playmakers like Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, and Jaylen Brown. What makes them even more difficult to guard is that they have a stretch-four in Marcus Morris along with big men like Al Horford and Aron Baynes that can also convert from deep.
The offensive talent that the Celtics have on their roster is utilized well by their coach, Brad Stevens. He does an effective job of being creative with the team’s offensive scheme and that makes it significantly more difficult to stop them. Between having a great coach, talented playmakers, and floor spacing, it’s easy to see why Boston is feared across the league.
In their last meeting of the regular season, the Pacers were simply unprepared to handle things like transition ball screens, ball screens set by guards, off-ball screens to exploit ball watching, and the exploitation of favorable matchups. Based on the coaching matchup, Indiana may find itself being a few steps behind from a strategy standpoint.
Indiana is going to need its perimeter players to be able to do a suitable job in on-ball situations in this series. They have relied on the assistance of their anchor, Myles Turner, throughout the regular season, but the help will not always be there considering the matchup is against frontcourt players that can spot up from deep.
If they are unable to stay in front of the Celtics’ perimeter playmakers and stay attentive in off-ball defense, they are simply going to allow a high volume of perimeter attempts. Boston averaged 34.8 3-point attempts (sixth) this season and aside from Golden State, no team that ranked within the top ten in 3-point attempts per game shot better than the Celtics’ 36.5 percent clip.
While it sounds rather straightforward, the Pacers will need to be able to play to their strengths. One of their calling cards has been their proficiency at forcing turnovers but it may be difficult to achieve great results in that area against the Celtics. Indiana’s opponents averaged 15.7 turnovers (tied for fourth) while Boston turned the ball over on average just 12.8 times per game (third).
Failing to contain a high-volume perimeter shooting team while also being unable to force a high rate of turnovers could prove to be too much to overcome rather quickly. Indiana will need to take care of business in the defensive rebounding department and that could happen since both teams actually had similar results in this category. The Pacers allowed an average of 10.5 opponent offensive rebounds (17th) while the Celtics allowed 10.4 and ranked just one spot higher compared to the rest of the league.
Not having Victor Oladipo has made it difficult for Indiana to produce enough on the offensive end of the floor. They have averaged only 106.6 points (29th) since the All-Star break and that will need to change for them to be competitive in this series. To make matters worse, role players typically perform worse in the playoffs and that’s their current makeup as a team.
Bojan Bogdanovic has filled in for Oladipo as Indiana's top offensive option as he has averaged 21.5 points since the All-Star guard’s season ending injury. He is going to need help from his teammates and the young center-duo may be the best option. Against the Celtics this season, Myles Turner averaged 14 points while Domantas Sabonis averaged 13.8, both of which were the best among non-Oladipo players.
A significant factor for the Pacers' half-court offense will be their spacing. Boston has often chosen to pack the paint as opposed to staying home on front-court players like Thaddeus Young when spotting up. He was a 34.9 percent perimeter shooter on the season but averaged a mere 1.8 attempts. If he is able to find consistency, the Celtics will have to think twice about leaving him in favor of helping in the paint.
Perimeter shooting will be critical aspect of this matchup, in general. The Pacers are at a significant disadvantage in this area because Boston is one of the higher volume 3-point shooting teams in the league as previously mentioned. Meanwhile, the Pacers may have shot 37.4 percent from deep (fifth), but they averaged only 25.4 3-point attempts (29th) and that could prove to be a real mathematical issue.
Not having a star could result in a higher rate of turnovers for the Pacers’ offense, too. This was not a problem area for them in the regular season as they averaged 13.7 turnovers (10th) but it’s still a disadvantage considering that the Celtics were elite in this area.
Perhaps the Pacers’ greatest offensive factor will be Tyreke Evans. He recently had his knee drained of fluid and this will be his last chance to improve his stock before becoming a free agent. While it has arguably been the worst season of his career, he still averaged 12.8 points against Boston and showed some positive signs.
While the Pacers appear to be at a disadvantage on paper, upsets are always possible in the playoffs.