INDIANAPOLIS – The road, and winning on it, has confounded the Celtics for the better part of a year. Despite reaching last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, they were 1-7 outside the Garden, and this season a very average 21-20 in road games.
The very mention of these numbers carries an annoying tone inside that locker room.
“Only won one on the road last year, everyone knows it, we know it, but we keep that in our mind and think of what we can do better to improve our record on the road in the playoffs,” said Jayson Tatum.
So maybe they learned something from that travel-weary stretch, beating Indiana last night, 104-96, in their first game outside the Garden this postseason. The win gave them a decisive 3-0 lead in their first-round playoff series, with a chance to close out the Pacers and sweep the series in Game 4 on Sunday.
Jaylen Brown, who continues to remind the league of who he was in the 2018 playoffs, exploded with a 23-point, 7-for-19 performance that included three first-quarter 3-pointers.
Kyrie Irving had a 19-point, 10-assist double-double, and had a hand in virtually every big play down the stretch, including a pair of pick-and-roll dishes to Al Horford for a 3-pointer followed by a 15-footer that helped the Celtics finally open up a little space in a particularly ugly game.
Indiana coach Nate McMillan promised some changes in his Irving coverage prior to the game, and the Pacers immediately started to blitz and trap the Celtics point guard. He made them pay, too.
“The Pacers have given us fits with their pick-and-roll defense because they switched a ton in the first two games, they blitzed right out of the gate, first play of the game against (Aron) Baynes. Myles Turner jumped Kyrie,” said Brad Stevens. “They mixed in blitzes the rest of the game, did different things, but the bigs didn’t switch quite as much. They switched some, but not quite as much.
“So then Al has a chance to play in the seams and popping,” said the Celtics coach. “So the best thing to do in that moment is keep it simple, figure out what the defense is doing and react to it. We’ve seen a lot in the last 85 games about how they react to Al and Kyrie, and then guarding Kyrie.
“Kyrie – some of the shots he hit, he had the driving layup which was a good move, but that little floating shot he hit was just a joke. He’s ridiculous.”
That floating shot, a runner from the right side, gave the Celtics a 93-89 lead with 4:16 left, and when Bojan Bogdanovic missed a short jumper, Irving found Horford out of the pick-and-roll for a 3-pointer and a 96-89 lead with 3:31 left.
Two Domantas Sabonis free throws later, Irving found Horford again, this time at the left elbow. Thaddeus Young helped the Celtics along when he missed the first of two free throws, leaving the Pacers down by six points (98-92) with 2:11 left.
Though Irving missed his next shot, Gordon Hayward tipped it in for a 100-92 edge. Though Young scored off a drive and Tatum threw the night into some mild concern by missing two free throws, the Celtics were able to peg their way out over the last minute from the line.
But Tatum’s two misses were telltale. The Celtics won despite a poor 12-for-21 performance from the line.
Then again, they have Irving to pave over some of these late-game worry spots.
“Well, I think that the confidence is just at a very high level,” he said. “We know what everyone’s capable of on the floor. As you saw down the stretch, everyone made some big plays. They were little things in the grand scheme when you think about it, but they were big plays — an offensive rebound here, a tip-out here, getting back in transition. Those are all the things that you need to do in order to really guarantee yourself a win.
“We understood that they were playing with a desperate mentality,” said Irving. “They didn’t wanna go down 3-0. Game 4’s gonna be even higher intensity. But this is a great stepping stone for us to continue to go after the big picture, and that’s just keep getting closer and closer to 16 wins. That’s all it takes.”