It happened again. The Indiana Pacers held a double-digit lead in a playoff game just for it to wither away and for the night to end in a loss.
Despite failing to score a single point over a 7:41 span during the fourth quarter, the Pacers were still in a prime position to win Game 2 late in the game. They were up 91-89 with 2:16 left to play after Bojan Bogdanovic converted on a step-back 3-pointer.
With Victor Oladipo sidelined, the team needed someone to step up into the leading closer role and Bogdanovic tried to answer the call. Boston tried to force him to put the ball on the ground because he recently converted on back-to-back 3-pointers, but he came up empty at the rim on consecutive drives.
On the first of the two drives, Bogdanovic should have made the pass to Darren Collison in the weak-side corner to at least have a chance at a scoring opportunity. He should have made the pass to Myles Turner in the strong-side corner on the second possession instead of attacking a versatile defender like Al Horford at the rim.
"We've got to finish," Pacers coach Nate McMillan said after the loss in Game 2. "We've got to do a better job of finishing games and situations like that. Execution on both ends of the floor, getting stops defensively, offensively being clear about what you need to do in that situation.”
There was additional damage that was done by the second drive and miss that Bogdanovic had in crunch time. Boston was able to receive a favorable transition possession after Horford blocked the shot. Collison failed to stop the ball and that resulted in a made corner 3-pointer for Jayson Tatum because the team defense was sucked into the paint.
Facing a 92-91 deficit with 50 seconds remaining, Indiana’s meltdown continued. It came up empty on each of its remaining offensive possessions and a couple of inexcusably bad defensive breakdowns. The Celtics went on to score seven unanswered points and came away with a 99-91 win.
“The last minute of the game was probably the worst basketball I’ve seen in a long, long time,” McMillan said. “We gave up 10 points in that minute and we had two turnovers. Just not good basketball.”
A few lessons can be learned from the first two games of this playoff series. The Celtics have considerably greater offensive talents like Kyrie Irving and Tatum that they can rely on throughout games and especially in clutch situations while the Pacers do not. That definitely helps when it comes to closing games and just making tough shots, in general, but it’s not the full story.
Boston also benefits from having a better coach in Brad Stevens compared to McMillan. Even if you just look at the two possessions after Tatum converted on that 3-pointer with 50 seconds left to put Boston up 92-91, you could see a real difference in how the two coaches handled a tightly contested game that was in its final moments.
In addition to his players being far better prepared, Stevens could be seen doing things like calling out defensive instructions at the beginning of possessions. He wanted to force the ball out of Bogdanovic’s hands to make someone else beat him by trapping a ball screen. The ball went to Turner and then to Matthews for a badly missed 3-pointer with 32 seconds left.
There was a possibility that Turner could have attempted a 3-pointer upon receiving the pass from Bogdanovic. It just seems that it would have been more advantageous to have Turner spot up to avoid directly engaging Horford on the ball. They could have tried to make Irving play on-ball defense by using Collison as the ball handler with Bogdanovic as the screener.
Facing a one-point deficit, McMillan quietly watched the ball like most of his players while Stevens was instructing Irving on what to run in their half-court offense. With nobody on the Pacers’ staff focused on the weak-side action, shuffling from Boston’s personnel took place in the corner that freed up Gordon Hayward for an easy layup.
The decision was great from Boston because Bogdanovic struggles to stay in front of playmakers out on the perimeter, especially if he has to make a close out. Collison felt responsible to help after Tatum blew by Bogdanovic and then Horford strategically walled off Young. This sequence of events left nobody to account for Hayward.
With the Celtics leading 94-91 with 12 seconds left, McMillan still had another chance. It came down to both teams receiving a side out-of-bounds possession, but McMillan’s team threw the ball away out of bounds while Stevens’ team got an easy and-one finish at the basket
It appears that Turner was supposed to screen Bogdanovic's man during the Pacers' side out-of-bounds play and it didn't happen. They still could have avoided this catastrophic turnover despite the play breaking down because the team still had a timeout left. They also could have simply looked for Collison as a safer option.
Boston's side out-of-bounds play forced Indiana to have to cover ground defensively and make multiple decisions with its switching assignments. Irving evading Young early in the possession before making the catch was ultimately what did the Pacers in because almost the entire unit was out of position, leaving Tatum open on his cut.
There was not a realistic pathway for the Pacers to recover from their mistakes without a miraculous sequence of events after the Celtics managed to go up 97-91 with 8.8 seconds remaining. Indiana ultimately turned the ball over on its final possession and then sent Hayward to the free throw line and he made them both.
The Celtics are not only a more talented team, they are simply a better coached team as well.