Giving Kyrie Irving space is the equivalent of letting a bird out of a cage, and last night the Celtics never needed their point guard’s free-flowing virtuosity more.
His drive off a handoff from Al Horford, culminating in a dribble between two defenders before laying the ball off the glass with five-tenths of a second left, clinched the Celtics’ 114-112 win over the Indiana Pacers at the Garden.
The win ties the Celtics with Indiana for the fourth seed, with one game left between the two on April 5, and gives them a 2-1 edge in the season series.
On a night when players and fans alike came wired for a playoff game, the Celtics survived one of their tightest results of the season. Irving, with 30 points on 11-for-22 shooting, including three 3-pointers, made every drop count. Horford’s 19 points and three blocks, along with an electric 16-point performance off the bench by Jaylen Brown, helped stave off a 27-point night by Indiana’s Bojan Bogdanovic.
“It’s fun. We’re going to learn them, they are going to learn us,” Aron Baynes said of the teams’ impending playoff pairing. “Both teams are going to make adjustments. There are definitely things we can do better and they are going to try to change up some stuff as well.
“It’s playoff basketball. It’s fun. There is a good environment out there. It’s going to be a good environment at their place and then we will probably meet for a few more games. It’s a whole lot of fun right now and that’s what we play for, getting ready for this time of year.”
Baynes’ 13-point, 13-rebound double-double was only the most obvious statistical sign of his impact. He played much of the night in tandem with Horford — a combination Brad Stevens would have gone to much more this season if not for injuries to the two players — and put up a defensive backstop the Celtics have often lacked.
The Pacers gave the Celts fits in the paint, especially by their seven second-chance points off five offensive rebounds in the fourth. But after taking the lead three times in the last 3:47 on two Irving free throws, a deep Marcus Smart 3-pointer and an Irving drive, there was little secret where the Celtics wanted to go after Darren Collison, under pressure from Irving, missed from 15 feet with 10.5 seconds left.
Though Stevens had an option to advance the ball into the frontcourt following his timeout, he instead chose to give Irving more space out of the backcourt.
And when Irving was double-teamed on the inbounds play, Horford took the ball and dribbled over midcourt, only then handing off to Irving on the right side of the floor.
When an initial trap disappeared when Myles Turner veered off to cover Horford, Irving headed straight for the basket, escaping Wesley Matthews on his way to a seemingly easy layup.
Doug McDermott was unable to get off Indiana’s final shot before the buzzer sounded.
“He commands so much attention. He’s still able to get out there and get some space,” Horford said of Irving.
“Whenever one of the guards gives him half a step, he takes full advantage of that. When I’m out there, I try to seal for him and he’s going to finish it more often than not. Most of the time he’s going to be able to finish it and just seeing him, he’s such a threat from the 3-point line, they kind of jump too far out on that and everything else opened up for him and he’s able to take advantage. It’s great having a guy with the offensive skills like that that can go out and do it at the end of the game.”
As evidenced by the tight margin, if the Celtics are to have any impact in the postseason, they’ll need Irving in this kind of form.
“I saw that they were going to try to deny me with Cory (Joseph) and Wes (Matthews), and I told Al just take off, get it up the court, buy us some time,” Irving said of the last play. “I went and got it, and I saw Myles Turner about to commit to the double team and then I just kind of gave a pass fake with my eyes and then went to the rim. Thankfully it went in.”
The win also landed the first blow in what is about to become an extended series.
“Yeah, it was definitely great,” Irving said. “Kind of like a pre-feel-out game if you want to call it for the playoffs, but home-court advantage was at stake, and I know we see them again one more time, so we’ll see how that goes and just keep on getting better for the rest of the regular season.”