In a particularly visceral sense the playoffs begin Friday night, when the Celtics play the first of two games in eight days against Indiana, this one in the Garden.
The Celtics and Pacers are also virtually assured of being first round playoff opponents. Now’s clearly the time to get used to a team that has somehow remained afloat since losing Victor Oladipo to a season-ending knee injury in late January. The Celtics trail Indiana by one-and-a-half games heading into tonight’s clash between the Pacers and Oklahoma City.
“Gotta take it like the playoffs have started for us,” Marcus Smart said after today’s practice. “They’re a playoff team, a possible team we might play. So if we can build some momentum against them before the playoffs start, who knows? If we do, we’re ready.”
The notion of momentum, though, was not the first thing on the mind of Brad Stevens today.
The Celtics coach broke his team down into small units — starters and reserves going at each other in smaller shifts — and this rare practice opportunity had a distinct playoff edge to it.
Players went at each other with an emphasis on defense — that oft-missing quality in recent Celtics performances.
“Well, I mean, I’m pretty locked in on us right now,” the Celtics coach said when asked whether he has elevated his preparation for Indiana.
“Certainly we prepare and we scout and we will be ready for each of those games, and we’re very cognizant of where the standings are, and the likelihood of that playing out,” said Stevens. “So yeah, you’re looking at it with a great amount of interest, and maybe even an enhanced level of detail. But we also can’t miss the boat on us, because we have a lot to work out ourselves.”
Though the Pacers had some remarkable success following Oladipo’s injury, that success has recently lagged. They lost four straight games during a Western Conference road trip that ended with a 112-89 loss to Golden State, though they also recovered by returning home to blow out the Nuggets, 124-88.
They are now back on the road, first in Oklahoma City tonight, followed by a hop to Boston.
And despite the loss of Oladipo, the Pacers aren’t all that different in terms of what they run.
“Not really,” said Smart. “Oladipo is a great player and tremendously helps that team out, but those guys play hard. Each and every last one of those guys can do wonders, especially is they feel comfortable, so even though Victor’s not there you have to play as if he is, because all of those guys are capable of going on a run.”
Said Gordon Hayward: “Oladipo’s a great player and somebody that they turn to late in games, for sure, and he’s a big-time shot maker but some of the things that they do haven’t really changed. They’re playing the seams, they play through their bigs, they make the right reads, the extra pass. They’re flying off dribble handoffs and coming off pick and rolls and just making reads, so that part doesn’t change. And then also they’re really physical, they play hard. They really play hard. For sure it really hurts them that they don’t have Oladipo but they’re still really tough.”
And with two late regular season games followed by a likely best-of-seven playoffs series, now’s the time to build up some post-season conditioning.
“It’s great — a great challenge for us — it will be good quality basketball preparing us for the playoffs,” said Al Horford. “It’s important. We’re able to just be home. Just had a good day of practice and tomorrow continue to work, watch film and get prepared. Huge advantage for our group just to be here for a couple of days.”
For now, anyway, little of it has to do with schematics, or hiding what they do from a likely playoff opponent.
“I don’t really worry about that stuff,” said Stevens. “There’s seven games in a series. That stuff all comes out. We have 75 games of film, as do they. People are easy to scout, for the most part. You might add something as the series goes on, you might tweak things, you might guard actions different ways, but I think sometimes when you focus on trying to trick people, it’s more important just to be you, and be the best version of yourself.”