INDIANAPOLIS — The Celtics wrapped up their first-round series against the Indiana Pacers Sunday night, earning their first sweep since the 2011 postseason.
“It feels good,” Marcus Morris said, with a smile, after Game 4. “We get some time to scout whichever team we’re going to play. We get some time to rest our bodies. We’re excited.”
After winning just one game away from TD Garden during last year’s playoff run, the Celtics came away with two gritty victories at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The road wins will become even more important moving forward, as they will not have home-court advantage against their likely second-round opponent, the Milwaukee Bucks.
Here’s what we learned from Boston’s opening series:
‘Playoff Kyrie’ has multiple dimensions.
Celtics fans got their first taste of ‘Playoff Kyrie’ in green and white when he went off for 37 points — including nine straight in the fourth quarter — in Game 2 to power yet another double-digit comeback. Irving made scoring look effortless, dazzling with everything from flashy finishes at the rim to back-to-back nothing-but-net three-pointers.
Kyrie is 🔥🔥🔥 pic.twitter.com/PR67TXCyd2
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) April 18, 2019
Dating back to the 2017 NBA Finals, Irving has tallied at least 20 points in six of his last nine playoff games. During that span, he is averaging 23.3 points per game on 45.5 percent shooting.
But there’s more to Irving’s game than just lighting up the scoreboard. In Game 3, when the Pacers made defensive adjustments in an attempt to shut him down, he flaunted his play-making ability, dishing out 10 assists. Irving said after the game he put an emphasis on getting others involved so that his teammates could “[put] their stamp on the game as well.”
“He’s always had an extreme knack for passing,” coach Brad Stevens said before Game 4. “He can really pass. He knows the game. He’s seen every defense, so it’s just a matter of reading it at game speed, which is tough.”
Irving’s presence was also felt on the defensive end, where he hauled in at least five boards in three games of the series. Over the course of all four contests, he also drew a pair of charges, notched a team-high 10 deflections, and registered five steals. Perhaps the most thrilling highlight, however, was his chase-down block in the first quarter of Game 3.
— NBA (@NBA) April 20, 2019
The Celtics’ depth is showing.
Because ‘Playoff Kyrie’ is such a threat, the Pacers often enlisted a double team to try and contain him. Although the strategy was somewhat effective in Games 3 and 4 — Irving didn’t score more than 20 points in either outing — the attention he commanded opened up opportunities for his teammates.
As a result, multiple players left their mark on the series.
In Game 1, Morris kept the team afloat in the first quarter. In Game 2, Jayson Tatum once again emerged as the budding superstar that he is, icing the game with a dunk in the final 10 seconds. In Game 3, Jaylen Brown was nearly perfect from the field, knocking down all but one of his nine field goal attempts. And in Game 4, Gordon Hayward and Morris took over in the fourth quarter to propel the Celtics to an 11-point lead in the fourth quarter.
“Obviously, I know how great I am with the ball, but we’re even more special as a team when I’m being aggressive and then I’m getting off the ball and they’re making great decisions as well,” Irving said after Game 4.
“We got guys that understand the goal ahead,” added Morris. “I think it shows on the court. We’re backing each other up. Every game, somebody else is stepping up. Our depth has been a strong point for us.”
One of the biggest assets of this team is its arsenal of star power, with several weapons able to make an impact on the offensive and defensive end — and it’s showing at the right time. Due to the absence of shooting guard Marcus Smart, who is recovering from a partially torn oblique muscle, Boston’s depth will be tested even further in the second round.
The original starting lineup is beginning to take form.
After getting off to a disappointing 10-10 start to the regular season, both Hayward and Brown were soon replaced in the starting rotation with Smart and Morris.
According to the NBA’s tracking data, the highly anticipated Irving-Tatum-Brown-Hayward-Horford lineup logged only 145 minutes together during the regular season, recording a 93.2 offensive rating and 94.6 defensive rating for a -1.4 net rating. For reference, Golden State’s most-used starting lineup had a 121.3 offensive rating and 102.7 defensive rating for an 18.7 net rating, while that of the Milwaukee Bucks had a 110.7 offensive rating and 104.5 defensive rating for a 6.2 net rating.
The Celtics’ starting five was clearly underperforming.
“I just think it was probably a lot of high expectations and a lot of pressure at the beginning of the year,” Horford said.
Stevens has since re-visited utilizing the original starters to close games. Through the first three games of the series against the Pacers, the lineup logged 13 minutes and demonstrated a vast improvement: 123.3 offensive rating and 110.0 defensive rating for a 13.3 net rating.
“We’ve been through a year together, so we understand what we need to do on the floor,” Horford said. “I just think that we all needed to understand how we needed to play, and it took changing the lineup for most of the year.”
Even though the lineup is clicking, don’t expect Stevens to wheel it out to start games. He has reiterated throughout the season that who finishes is more important than who starts.