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Eastern Conference Finals Preview: What The Pacers Have To Do To Threaten The Celtics

Getty Image/Merle Cooper

Of the two NBA Conference Finals series, the East is the one most anticipate to be a foregone conclusion. The Boston Celtics have been expected to cruise to the NBA Finals since before the playoffs began, but once teams like Milwaukee and Philadelphia were bounced, their odds only increased in the eyes of most.

The Indiana Pacers now stand as the last team remaining in the way of a Celtics Finals appearance, and few are picking them to pull off the upset. Indiana were impressive in beating the Bucks and Knicks to get here, but both teams were dealing with significant injury issues. As such, not everyone is willing to shake the feeling the Pacers lucked into this spot, with some like Draymond Green still believing they’re a regular season team.

There is one surefire way to turn folks into believers, and that is to push Boston in a way they haven’t been this postseason. The Celtics haven’t looked like an unbeatable juggernaut, dropping a game to each of the Heat and Cavs, but they do have a floor that is considerably higher than any other East team.

That is what makes Indiana’s margin for error almost non-existent in this series. To beat Boston, they’re going to have to find their A-game more than just four times, because inevitably there will be a game where their best runs up against the Celtics best, and Boston will likely win that battle. After an up-and-down series with the Knicks, the Pacers will have to find a more consistent level against Boston.

That starts with Tyrese Haliburton, who perhaps figured out his road woes in Game 7 in the Garden, and will have to carry that over for the Pacers to have a chance. He struggled with New York’s ball pressure early in the series, and will now have to deal with Jrue Holiday and Derrick White hounding him. He is going to have to remain aggressive and not allow Boston’s defensive guards to turn him into a non-scorer, because Boston’s team defense is too good for him to be pressured into passing to Andrew Nembhard and Aaron Nesmith and asking them to create, like he did late in Games 1 and 2 in New York.

Some of that will be incumbent on the Pacers getting creative to start sets with Haliburton off the ball and getting him the ball on the move so Holiday and White can’t get into his body as easily as when he brings the ball up the floor. Pascal Siakam, who has been very good for Indiana this postseason, will also have to raise his game to another level and share that creative burden. Beyond being the Pacers best wing shot creator, he also figures to draw Jayson Tatum as a defender at times and will be the Pacers best bet at making Tatum expend additional energy on the defensive end.

The rest of the Pacers will have to make shots, maybe not at the 67 percent clip they did in Game 7, but they’re going to have to win the three-point battle to have any chance to win this series. Myles Turner and Nembhard have given big lifts as shooters this postseason and that will need to continue, while Nesmith will need to find his shooting stroke as he’s struggled thus far.

On defense, the Pacers are going to face a very different challenge to their first two series, where they were tasked with dealing with point guard dynamos in Damian Lillard and Jalen Brunson. This series, they’ll face more pressure from the wing, as Tatum and Jaylen Brown lead the Celtics offense, with Holiday and White offering more of a support role from the backcourt. I’d expect Tatum and Brown to look to use guards as screeners in an effort to attack Indiana’s guards (particularly Haliburton). How the Pacers approach that challenge and how often they concede switches might be determinative in how this series goes for them defensively. Indiana is going to have to put full effort into the defensive end to avoid giving up those favorable matchups, but also has to be cognizant of who they’re leaving to send help.

I’d expect them to ask Al Horford and Jrue Holiday to prove they can consistently make shots, while trying to stay attached to Tatum, Brown, and White (who has been sensational this postseason). If they can turn this into a shooting variance series by the “others,” it gives them a chance. If Tatum and Brown can feel comfortable and get the looks they want, it’s a wrap, so you have to roll the dice on Holiday and Horford being shooters. That can also end in disaster, but there aren’t a lot of “good” options against this Boston offense.

The first two games in Boston are going to be particularly important for the Pacers, as the Celtics are expected to be without Kristaps Porzingis for both games. They are far more vulnerable on both ends without their star big man, and Indiana has to get at least one game in Boston to open this series — if not both. That’s an extremely difficult task, but then again, so is this series as a whole. On the other side, Boston will need to make an early statement in this series, as the Pacers are as confident as they’ve ever been coming off their Game 7 performance in New York. If they can pick off Game 1 in Boston, that belief will only grow in the Indiana locker room.

The Celtics are -900 favorites for a reason in this series, but the Pacers have the offensive firepower to make this interesting. The margin for error will be nearly nothing for Indiana, but the pathway is there to shock the basketball world.