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NBA Playoffs: Eastern Conference Finals Preview

The Boston Celtics are rested and ready for the Eastern Conference Finals, where they will face the Indiana Pacers, one of the surprise teams of the NBA season.

Unlike the defending NBA champions, it’s all going to plan for the Boston Celtics at the moment. They’re $1.67 favourites to win the title having occupied the first line of betting in the championship winner market all season. They come into this series against the Indiana Pacers after disposing of the Cleveland Cavaliers with relative ease.

Into their sixth Eastern Conference Finals series in eight years, it’s familiar territory for the Celtics. The expectation is for a championship and this series is a hurdle they’ve always been expected to leap regardless of the opposition.

Few expected the Pacers to make it this far. While they’ve entertained and excited all season, they tipped the post-season off as the sixth seed. They’ve needed to beat the Milwaukee Bucks and New York Knicks to get here, which, a month ago, looked like a mountain too high for the Pacers to climb. However, the bracket has broken the right way as the opposition breaks down. Without taking anything away from the Pacers, the injury Gods have been unkind to those in front of them.

Nonetheless, the Pacers are preparing for their first Eastern Conference Finals since 2014. While the Celtics won 17 more regular season games, there could yet be more surprises in this series.

Key Matchup: Tatum v Haliburton

Jayson Tatum finished sixth in voting for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award. That keeps him outside the all-important Top 5 players that typically lead a team to a championship. Still, he’s the main man for the Celtics and at the top of the scouting report for the Pacers.

He averaged 26.9 points 8.2 rebounds and a career-high 4.9 assists per game during the regular season. Notably, Tatum has bumped his assists number up even further in the playoffs to 5.8 per game.

While Tatum will have the ball in his hands late and no doubt be tasked with hitting the biggest shots if any are on offer, how he gets others involved in the early stages will be crucial. The Pacers don’t have defence to contain the whole Celtics offence. They’re limited to Aaron Nesmith when it comes to genuinely good perimeter defenders. Nesmith can only guard one of Tatum and Jaylen Brown at a time, and who he matches up against on any given possession will likely have a significant impact on the outcome.

As Bill Sy of CelticsBlog pointed out, Brown and Tatum targeted Nesmith more than any other player in the league this season, splitting the 48 shots evenly while knocking down 26 of them. Both found success in their four meetings so far this season. Tatum averaged 32.5 points, shooting 48.6% from deep, while Brown dropped 28.4 points per game on 60% shooting. Whether Tatum is piling up points or adding to his career-best passing season, he’s the chassis to Boston’s top-ranked offensive rating.

In contrast, the Celtics have the guards to make life difficult for Tyrese Haliburton. In Jrue Holiday and Derrick White, there won’t be a minute this series where the Pacers point guard doesn’t have a high-quality defender in front of him. Where Tatum and Brown dominated the season series, Haliburton’s numbers aren’t so pretty: 15.8 points shooting 41% from the field.

Haliburton will need to add to his season averages of 20.1 points and 47% shooting if the Pacers are to cause the upset. So far in the playoffs, he averaged only 15.6 points and 7.2 assists per game in the five games Indiana lost. While he’s not an elite scorer, early buckets help his game as a facilitator. It’s crucial he doesn’t fall into the shooting slump that plagued the back end of his regular season.

One Big Question: What Happens When The Pacers Aren’t Running Hot?

The Pacers can put up points on any defence in the NBA on their night.

They led the NBA in points scored (123.3) and assists (30.8) per game while shooting a league-best 50.7% from the field throughout the regular season. From a pure scoring perspective, their 114.2 points per game in the playoffs also leads the post-season.

If Haliburton keeps tracking back toward his MVP-contending form and the Pacers are running hot, they will cause the Celtics enough problems to win a game or two at the very least.

In Game 7 against the Knicks, the Pacers set a new playoff record shooting 67.1% from the field. They couldn’t miss and made sure to use the historical shooting night to book their place in the Eastern Conference Finals. However, the fact they needed a night like that to beat an injury-depleted Knicks team in seven games is the concern.

While the Pacers might strike fear into a defence with their second-ranked offence scoring 121 points per 100 possessions, their own lacklustre defence allowing 118 points per 100 possessions leaves them with a +3 net rating (10th), 8.6 points behind the NBA-leading Celtics.

The Pacers don’t have the defence to make up for a bad shooting night. Assuming one pops up at some stage throughout the series, it will be interesting to see how they respond.

NBA Playoffs: Eastern Conference Tips

Indiana’s offence is enough to think they can avoid a sweep. Boston’s strange form when playing at home in the post-season is also a factor.

“They’re 14-14 in home playoff games in the last three seasons. It’s the most played over a three-year span without a winning record in NBA history”NBA Week In Review

However, it’s difficult to imagine the Pacers winning four games. They’re simply not up to it defensively and rely too heavily on their offence putting up monster numbers. This isn’t the injury-impacted Bucks and Knicks – although, the Celtics are without Kristaps Porzingis. They’re up against the third-best defence in the NBA here.

The Celtics can keep up with the Pacers offensively, are far superior defensively, and have the depth and experience on the roster to deal with the uncertainties of playoff basketball. Joe Mazzula has had five extra days to prepare his team physically and tactically. Provided they stick to what has worked throughout the regular season and don’t crumble under the pressure of expectation, the Celtics should win it in five.

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