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The Celtics Found a Winning Formula, but Will It Work on Anyone Except the Pacers?

Kyrie Irving heroics and Al Horford’s do-everything-else routine were enough for Boston to storm back and beat Indiana again. But the outlook for its playoff future is still in the eye of the beholder.

NBA: Playoffs-Indiana Pacers at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

The most important thing about the Boston Celtics’ performance in Game 2 of their opening-round series against the Indiana Pacers is that they didn’t lose. Wednesday’s 99-91 victory made the Celtics the first team in the Eastern Conference to get within two wins of the second round, and you can’t take that for granted; in the NBA playoffs, that you win matters much more than how you win. That doesn’t mean that how you win is irrelevant, though, and you’d be within your rights to feel unsure about what to make of a team that has rolled up a two-game lead over a star-less opponent despite scoring just 96.3 points per 100 possessions in those two games.

In Game 1, the C’s survived inefficient, often stagnant offense by clamping down on Indiana, who is desperately lacking shot creation in the absence of injured All-Star guard Victor Oladipo, forcing the punchless Pacers into a dismal eight-point third quarter that swung the game. In Game 2, though, Indiana fielded a more potent attack, featuring crisp off-ball movement, stiff screens to spring shooters, and confident strokes that led to a 13-for-34 mark from 3-point land. The NBA’s no. 3 regular-season defense, and its second-most-opportunistic when it came to forcing turnovers this season, racked up 11 steals and scored 23 points off of Boston cough-ups. After Tyreke Evans capped a 22-8 run to open the third quarter by picking off a lazy Marcus Morris outlet pass and running it in for a layup to push Indiana’s lead to 12, the fans at TD Garden even rained down some boos on a Celtics squad that looked to be in danger of joining the Warriors, Raptors, and 76ers as heavy favorites to lay early-series eggs.

Boston survived again, though, thanks in part to the Pacers’ predilection toward offensive droughts—this time, in the final 11-plus minutes of the game.

The Pacers didn’t make a single shot inside the arc in Wednesday’s fourth quarter—not a 2-pointer, not a free throw—due partly to some fantastic defensive work by Al Horford. The linchpin big man was listed as questionable before the game with an illness, and he clearly didn’t look 100 percent—he was scoreless through three quarters, and finished with just four points on 2-for-6 shooting—but he played the entire fourth, looming in the paint as a help defender to dissuade would-be drivers and alter shots at the rim. On a critical final-minute possession, Horford inhaled Bojan Bogdanovic on a drive that would’ve given Indiana a four-point lead, but instead led to a Jayson Tatum 3 that put Boston back in front:

Horford’s back-line command and Indiana’s return to the Land of Always Winter left the door open for the Celtics to erase their double-digit deficit. Kyrie Irving and Tatum took advantage by kicking it off the hinges, combining for 19 fourth-quarter points to provide the firepower Boston needed to surge back into control:

But even with Irving and Tatum scorching, the Celtics still couldn’t quite put Indiana away. Bogdanovic nailed a pair of tough triples to give the Pacers the lead with two minutes to go, and they trailed by just one after Tatum’s 3 with 51 seconds remaining. A team with a true closer—say, one who shot 63.2 percent in “clutch” situations this season and led all players in points per game when the score was within five points—would hand him the ball and let him go to work. A team without that kind of guy, though, has to come up with something else. Unfortunately, what the Pacers came up with on the last few possessions … well, let’s just say it left something to be desired:

An optimist can look at the Celtics and see the formula coming together. Hand the keys to Irving—who scored a game-high 37 points (15-for-26 shooting, 6-for-10 from deep) to go with seven assists, six rebounds, two blocks, and a steal—and let him run roughshod on every defender in his path. Call on Horford (10 rebounds, four assists, two blocks) to captain the defense, keep the ball moving, and do anything else so Kyrie can focus on killing.

Get the youngsters who starred in the 2018 postseason to star in their roles alongside the two main attractions. (To that end, Tatum looked great on his way to 26 points on 55 percent shooting; Jaylen Brown battled defensively against Bogdanovic, grabbed nine rebounds, and made one of the plays of the game with his full-court push and dish to Tatum in the corner for the game-winning 3; and Terry Rozier played his tail off in place of the injured Marcus Smart.) Sprinkle in positive contributions from a coming-on-of-late Gordon Hayward—13 points on seven shots, five rebounds, plus-10 in 28 minutes—and you’ve got a recipe that could potentially cook up something pretty interesting against Milwaukee in Round 2.

Glass-half-empty types, though, might submit that it’s not such a great sign that the Celtics needed Superhero Kyrie, Flu Game Horford, a star turn from Tatum, and a complete late-game cave-in just to turn back an opponent with this little offensive juice. You can survive grim stretches like scoring two points in seven and a half third-quarter minutes, or lapses that concede fourth-quarter 3-point looks like the ones Bogdanovic canned, against these Pacers. Against better teams—like the top-seeded Bucks, who also went up 2-0 on Wednesday by blowing out the Blake Griffin–less Pistons and could await the winner of this series in Round 2—those errors could prove much more costly. (And one wonders what the Celtics, who had issues balancing an overstuffed rotation all season, will do once Smart’s partially torn oblique muscle heals enough for him to return to the fold.)

A professional ass-kicking or two once the series shifts to Indianapolis would help bolster confidence that Boston really does, after all the drama and stress of the 2018-19 regular season, have what it takes to storm back to the conference finals. Until we see that sort of postseason performance from this group, though, the state of the Celtics—and of their chances of competing for the title that seemed all but assured when Irving and Hayward joined up in the summer of 2017—would seem to remain very much in the eye of the beholder.