Celtics

A Battle of Offensive Heavyweights Headlines the 2024 ECF

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The stage is set for Tuesday night at TD Garden— the outset of an Eastern Conference Finals clash between the Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers.

This marks Boston’s sixth Conference Finals run over the past eight seasons. While their extended postseason exposure climaxed in an NBA Finals appearance in 2022, they’re yet to stamp their current nucleus with the immortality of a championship. The Celtics are familiar with the magnitude of the moment and eager for another shot at exorcising the demons of past playoff mistrials. 

Indiana’s expeditious rise has been far less sequential. A mid-season trade in February of 2022 snatched Tyrese Haliburton from the Sacramento Kings, and since then, a series of shrewd front-office maneuvers have surrounded him with the apparatus to optimize his playmaking virtuosity. They’ve vaulted into the Conference Finals from the depths of the draft lottery just two years prior.

While relatively untried under the bright lights, Indiana is hardened from a grueling seven-game series against the New York Knicks under the unyielding microscope of NBA media. After falling into an 0-2 hole, the Pacers stormed back with four double-digit wins in five games— capped off by a record-shattering offensive performance (67.1% FG) in Game 7 at Madison Square Garden. They’re a perfect 6-0 at home this postseason, and even better, their fans willingly sport the yellow t-shirts draped over the back of their seats— the last of a dying breed.

Don’t mistake their inexperience for trepidation. Indiana is hungry, tested and battle-ready with an NBA Finals birth on the line. 

While the Celtics and Pacers have trekked wildly different paths, they intersect at a point of equal opportunity where the first to four wins faces the best of the West—either the Dallas Mavericks or Minnesota Timberwolves. 

Sizing up the competition

In regard to the team-building constraints of the salary cap, the Celtics are masters of elusion— seemingly enhancing their roster every year to avenge postseason shortcomings of the past.

Powered by a lethal amalgamation of top-end creation, connective playmaking, and pinpoint shooting from all five positions, Boston collectively churns points at a historic rate— evidenced by their NBA-record 123.2 offensive rating.

The second-rated offense in NBA history? The ‘23-24 Indiana Pacers. They produce quality shot attempts at unprecedented efficiency through tornados of incessant motion and hypnotic ball movement. Haliburton steers the ship— operating at a breakneck pace and bending defenses out of shape through constant probing and paint penetration. Indiana has shooters, drivers and quick decision-makers at all five positions. Once they earn an offensive advantage, they attack closeouts, whip the ball around the perimeter, and generate open shots at will.

In a league dominated by stars, Indiana defies the heliocentric tendencies of most offensive ecosystems. Nine of their players averaged over 9.0 PPG this season. The ball never sticks— their 30.8 APG falls third in the all-time ranks behind just the ‘84-85 Los Angeles Lakers and ‘78-79 Milwaukee Bucks. While Haliburton stars as their most prolific advantage-creator, T.J. McConnell-led bench units are self-sufficient in their own right. 

While the Celtics and Pacers differ process-wise, both have earned their crowns as upper-echelon bucket-generators thriving under the parameters of the modernized, pace-and-space era of NBA basketball. 

Where the two sides diverge, however, is on the defensive end. In an area in which the Pacers struggled mightily, the Celtics ranked third in the NBA with a defensive rating of 111.6. Both members of its starting backcourt, Jrue Holiday and Derrick White, received Defensive Player of the Year recognition. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum epitomize versatility on the wings. Numerous statistics have illustrated Kristaps Porzingis as a top rim protector in each of the past two seasons.

Expect Indiana to lean into the principles of its motion-based offense, but Boston’s personnel will necessitate some methodological adjustments.

The pace conundrum

As previously mentioned, a bulk of Indiana’s offensive success derives from creating advantages through pace.

When the Pacers attack early in the shot clock, they’re able to pressure the rim and perpetuate a “read-and-react” offensive flow amidst defensive scrambles. In the first two rounds, they decimated Milwaukee and New York through quick counterpunches off turnovers, defensive rebounds, and even opposing baskets. Their 18.4% transition frequency this postseason ranks comfortably above the other remaining teams. 

Boston is uniquely equipped to combat Indiana’s up-tempo offense. Their 12.5% transition frequency in this year’s playoffs trails only the Phoenix Suns, who played just four games. The Celtics strike a beautiful balance between attacking the offensive glass and containing the ball in transition. Indiana is rebounding 68.1% of their opponent’s shots in the postseason, the third-lowest mark amongst the 16 playoff teams.

Boston’s effectiveness in mitigating the tempo of the game while punishing Indiana’s lack of commitment on the defensive boards will be a key bellwether for the series.

Indiana’s halfcourt offense

Indiana will have to manipulate Boston’s defense in order to consistently engineer paint pressure and force defensive rotations.

Expect Holiday to seize the Haliburton matchup. He’s untraversable at the point of attack and armed with the brute strength to bump guards off their driving path, making him a headache to shake without pre-created advantages. When the Celtics crossmatch, they have the requisite length and switchability at the 1-4 spots to disrupt Indiana’s creators. Boston is impossible to crack through isolation. The Pacers’ recipe for sustainable offensive success will require initiating trickle effects by attacking the Celtics’ few vulnerabilities.

This is where Porzingis’ injury is pivotal. Al Horford, the temporary replacement at center, offers a pressure point for opposing offenses. Horford’s lack of size and verticality renders him relatively ineffective in drop coverage against pick-and-rolls; thus, he’s forced to defend up near the level of the screen. 

In Round 2, the Cleveland Cavaliers exploited this by spamming screening actions for Darius Garland to create switches. While Horford still shuffles his feet exceptionally well for a 38-year-old at 6-foot-9, this proved to be a viable offensive formula for the Cavaliers. Over the five-game series, Boston surrendered 1.14 PPP in pick-and-rolls compared to just 0.67 PPP in isolation.

Perhaps, Boston opts for Tatum, rather than Horford, as the primary Myles Turner matchup. Indiana has used Turner as the screener over twice as frequently as Pascal Siakam this postseason. His utility as both a roller and popper forces Horford to guard in space. With Tatum in the action instead, Boston will happily concede switches. He covers ground at a much faster rate than Horford while suffocating guards with his size and length. 

If Horford guards Siakam, Indiana can work this matchup by flowing from their motion offense into dribble handoffs. When executed properly, this should create downhill opportunities for Siakam to attack Horford in space, where he can weaponize either his quickness with the ball or his patented face-up jumpshot.

Boston can also start with Horford matched against Turner, but pre-switch off the ball in an effort to substitute Tatum in as the second defender in perimeter actions. Indiana’s attentive weakside cutting and positional shooting across the board will make this more difficult in five-out sets.

In short, expect Indiana to replicate Cleveland’s cat-and-mouse strategy with Horford. This makes for some fascinating tactical warfare between Rick Carlisle and Joe Mazzulla.

Creating through the “Jays”

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown pose a matchup nightmare for Indiana on the wings due to their blend of size and skill.

Tatum, in particular, torched the Pacers for averages of 32.5 points and 5.8 assists on 57.8% shooting in four regular-season meetings this season. Aaron Nesmith has taken the Tatum assignment in each of such games, and at 6-foot-5, his physical inferiority immediately puts him behind the eight ball. 

Either Andrew Nembhard or Siakam projects to match-up with Brown. If it’s Nembhard, Boston can create touches near the hoop at will through empty-side post-ups. Nembhard simply lacks the strength to deter Brown without help. Siakam struggles mightily in his efforts to contain the ball in isolation, rendering him a sub-optimal counter as well. 

Boston will also headhunt Haliburton. Inverted high screen-and-rolls with his matchup (either White or Holiday) and Tatum as the ball-handler will force Haliburton to hedge and offer Boston an easy outlet for downhill creation. 

Will Indiana opt to blitz Brown and Tatum at the risk of unlocking White, Holiday and the rest of the Celtics’ complimentary crew? Or, would they rather surrender outbursts from Boston’s stars while compensating by cutting off the facet on the “others”?

Expect a lot of experimentation early in the series as Indiana works to identify the lesser of the two evils.

Shooting variance

Both Boston and Indiana are liable to rip off quarters, halves and even games of unwavering perimeter marksmanship.

Extended defensive pressure and containment of dribble-penetration are key ingredients to keeping opponents out of rhythm. Expect McConnell, Ben Sheppard and Payton Pritchard to pick up ball-handlers deep in the backcourt.

The offensive potency of both sides makes for a captivating matchup, and likely the toughest 2024 postseason test for either team thus far. 

Game 1 will tip off Tuesday night at 8:00 PM ET on ESPN. The Celtics open as 9.5-point favorites.

About Jackson Boake

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