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Aiming to get 'over the hump' and win it all, Celtics first have to get past Pacers

Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum during the second half of Game 5 of an NBA basketball second-round playoff series, Wednesday, May 15, 2024, in Boston.
Charles Krupa
Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum during the second half of Game 5 of an NBA basketball second-round playoff series, Wednesday, May 15, 2024, in Boston.

The Boston Celtics will host the Indiana Pacers Tuesday night in Game 1 of the NBA Eastern Conference finals.

The Celtics have been resting since they defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers last Wednesday in the semifinals. The Pacers come to the series following a Game 7 win over the New York Knicks on Sunday.

To preview the series, we spoke with Adam Himmelsbach, the Celtics beat writer with The Boston Globe.

Kari Njiiri, NEPM: The Celtics, for better or worse, have been favored to make it to the finals and win the championship. They had the league's top-ranked offense, while Indiana ranked 24th out of the 30 teams on defense. The Celtics won the regular season series against the Pacers, but that's no guarantee when it comes to playoff basketball. What's your take on this matchup between the number one and number six seeds?

Adam Himmelsbach, Boston Globe: For the Celtics, they'll say all the right things about how tough the Pacers are. But the truth is, you couldn't have asked for a better matchup at this level. You know, Indiana is the only team that made the playoffs that has one of the 10 worst defenses in the NBA. And now, here they are in the conference finals. They were very fortunate. They played a Milwaukee team that was missing Giannis Antetokounmpo. And for much of the series, Damian Lillard was hobbled. And then they played a Knicks team — that was really just hanging by a thread with an absurd number of injuries — to get to this point.

So, for the Celtics, your focus has to be just kind of taking care of business and not thinking about that. They spoke about that a little bit at practice, talking about, look, this is a team we know is dangerous. This is a team that can shoot three pointers, which is kind of the great equalizer in the NBA. If you get hot. Anything can happen. But one thing about this Boston team, they've maintained their focus all year long. They haven't had a single three-game losing streak all year, which is pretty unheard of.

For those that aren't familiar with the Pacers, who should we be paying attention to?

Yeah, so their star is a point guard named Tyrese Haliburton. He's still a young player. He's an all-star this year. He started the year playing absolutely incredible basketball. He was talked about as an MVP candidate. But then he had a hamstring strain in January and missed some time and came back and really just hasn't been quite the same player since then. He showed signs of it against the Knicks, which is encouraging for the Pacers, of course. He hadn't scored more than 30 points in a game since his injury, and he did it twice against the Knicks in this most recent series. He's a scorer. He's a dangerous three-point shooter. He's also a really good distributor, averages more than ten assists per game and is the one behind everything they do offensively.

And they'll of course also have Pascal Siakam, who has championship experience when he was with the Toronto Raptors.

Right. Pascal was a midseason addition for the Pacers and an important one. They were a .500 team without him in the lineup and several games over since he's been in the lineup. So he's a big addition as well, an all-star caliber player, which is really what you need to kind of get to this point.

You mentioned injuries. The Celtics have center Kristaps Porzingis injured. He missed the last series. How does his injury affect Boston's chances in this series?

I don't really think it affects them all that much. And there's a chance he could come back in this series. I had heard all along it was looking like a three week-ish absence, most likely. And we just reached the three-week point. He's obviously not ready quite yet.

But if you're the Celtics, I believe they're going to be almost overly cautious with him. Again, they would never say this, but they're extreme, heavy favorites in this series even without him. So I think they'll kind of take their chances, not rush him back. Because look, a calf strain can be tricky. It's not like when maybe a broken bone heals and, you know, "OK, my bone is healed. I'm good." Calf strain — there's a there's a danger of recurrence of injury. And if he has anything like that, he'd most likely be out for the playoffs. They want to do everything they can to avoid that.

Given their play throughout the playoffs, are there concerns you have about the Celtics?

Well, long term, it's Porzingis injury, for sure. They don't need him this series — I don't think. But I think you'll need him against, most likely, the Minnesota Timberwolves, who I think are going to come out of the West. I don't think they can win a championship without him. I think they can get past the Pacers without him.

Otherwise, it's hard to nitpick with this team. The truth is this team hasn't made that final step yet. So there's a little caution in wondering, can they do it? You know they've gotten so close. This is the sixth time some of this corps, like Jaylen Brown, has even been in the conference finals. But they haven't quite got over the hump.

It should be a fun series. A lot of people are dismissing the Pacers, and I do think the Celtics will take care of business. But, again, there's a reason they play the game. So we'll see what happens once the actual games begin.

Kari Njiiri is a senior reporter and longtime host and producer of "Jazz Safari," a musical journey through the jazz world and beyond, broadcast Saturday nights on NEPM Radio. He's also the local host of NPR’s "All Things Considered."
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