Celtics-Pacers: Keys to the game

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Celtics-Pacers: Keys to the game

BOSTON When it comes to winning in the NBA, there's always a price to be paid. One of the drawbacks in Boston's 91-83 comeback win over Orlando on Thursday was that it meant extending the minutes of core guys like Kevin Garnett.

"It was a tough call for me," said C's coach Doc Rivers, pointing towards tonight's game against Indiana as one of the reasons the choice to extend Garnett's playing time was not an easy one to make. "He wanted to stay in so we allowed him to."

Garnett wasn't alone.

Paul Pierce wound up playing a season-high 44 minutes which included him seeing floor action in all but 23 seconds of the second half.

With a tough, well-rested Indiana Pacers team that arrived in Beantown Thursday afternoon, the C's might have to tap into their bench earlier and more often than usual.

That may not necessarily be a bad thing when you consider how so many of the Celtics' role players stepped up on Thursday, making the most of their opportunity to play meaningful minutes in the absence of starters Rajon Rondo (wrist), Ray Allen (ankle) and Jermaine O'Neal (knee).

It was the kind of victory that bodes well for a team with lots of new faces still trying to figure out how they fit in with the current core.

"It should give us tremendous confidence," Pierce said. "Especially with guys hurt. You got key - key! - guys hurt. Jermaine (O'Neal) was huge the first game guarding Dwight (Howard); our all-star point guard (Rondo), our all-star two-guard (Allen) everything was in the makings for us to lay down (against the Pacers) and get ready for (tonight)."

But they didn't.

Rather than fold, they found a way to escape with an improbable win.

But the success of Thursday night will do them little good against a Pacers squad that already has two wins in as many games against the Celtics this season.

"We owe them," said C's forward Brandon Bass. "They beat us in our place. We went there, they beat us. We just owe them. We gotta come out with the same defensive intensity we had (on Thursday) and get the win."

Here are some of the things to keep tabs on as the Celtics seek a fourth straight win that would bring them back to having a .500 record.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Dead legs have to be a huge concern for the Celtics tonight. The best indicator of this is usually in how a team shoots from the field. Jumpers don't have the same lift, and lay-ups tend to roll in and out more often. That becomes an even bigger deal tonight against an Indiana team that's ranked No. 1 in the NBA in field goal percentage defense (41.2 percent).

MATCHUP TO WATCH: Paul Pierce vs Danny Granger. It's obvious that Pierce is feeling like his old self -- and not just old -- lately. During the C's three-game winning streak, Pierce has averaged 25.7 points, nine assists and 6.3 rebounds in addition to playing solid defense. "I am starting to get my legs back. I am playing better basketball," Pierce said. Granger has also picked his game up recently, averaging 19.3 points and 5.7 rebounds in Indiana's last three games.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Indiana's Roy Hibbert is arguably the second-best center in the East behind Dwight Howard, but poses a different -- and in some ways, tougher -- matchup problem. Unlike Howard who relies heavily on his strength and athleticism, Hibbert's length is what will give the Celtics problems. Don't be surprised that if Jermaine O'Neal (left knee) can't play, C's Doc Rivers goes with rookie Greg Stiemsma as the starting center instead of having Brandon Bass start at power forward and sliding Kevin Garnett over to defend Hibbert. To the C's credit, they have made things tough for Hibbert offensively in both games this season. In each of the two matchups, the 7-foot-2 center shot 5-for-15 from the field.

STAT TO TRACK: If the Celtics are to have a real shot at winning tonight, they have to keep the Pacers off the offensive boards. Indiana won the second-chance points game by 14 in each of the two previous games. But the Celtics have hope that they can turn it around, especially against an Indiana that has been outscored each of the last three games in second-chance points, something that had not occurred at any point prior.

Blakely: Game 4 loss shows just how much Celtics miss Isaiah

Blakely: Game 4 loss shows just how much Celtics miss Isaiah

CLEVELAND --  Down the stretch in Game 4, the Celtics were desperate for someone, anyone, who could slow down Kyrie Irving.
 
But short of that, Boston could have used an offensive closer, too. You know, someone like Isaiah Thomas.

GAME 4: CAVS 112, CELTICS 99

 

The Celtics have relied on the two-time All-Star to carry much of the offensive burden this season, but he was almost always at his best in the fourth quarter.
 
A right hip injury knocked him out of this series after 1 1/2 games. Still, Boston managed to win Game 3 without him and, for large chunks of Tuesday night, seemed poised to beat the Cavs again on their home floor.
 
But as much as Game 4 was a reminder of just how special a talent Irving is (42 points, 21 in the third quarter when the game’s momentum swung in Cleveland's favor), it also provided a clue to the clueless who thought the Celtics were actually better without Isaiah Thomas.
 
Defensively?
 
Absolutely.
 
It’s no secret that teams go to great lengths to try and use his 5-foot-9 stature against him. And as we have seen, the deeper we get into the postseason the more trouble he and the Celtics seem to encounter from a defensive standpoint.
 
But just as we praise Irving for being such a special talent, Thomas has shown that he, too, has offensive gifts that, throughout this season, have left many fans, media and defenders befuddled as to how “the little fella” keeps coming up with one big play, one big shot after another.
 
But as we have learned, he has been dealing with a sore right hip injury for several weeks. The pain and discomfort eventually became too much to bear and so the Celtics did the right thing and shut him down.
 
Without him, the C's are still a good team that on any given night can knock off anyone, even the defending champs.
 
But as Game 4 reminded us, they need Thomas in order to be their best.
 
When Irving torched Boston’s entire defense with jumpers, ankle-breaking crossovers, Euro-step lay-ups and free throws, the Celtics had no one to turn to who could maybe, just maybe, go back at Irving at the other end of the floor.
 
That's what Thomas does that makes him such a special, unique talent in this league.
 
He can score in a variety of ways, with the best in the NBA.
 
We saw that this past season, when he led all players in the Eastern Conference in scoring with a 28.9 points-per-game average.
 
Boston’s excellent ball movement and high assist numbers are certainly important to the team’s success. But to make a deep and meaningful playoff run, you need one or two guys who can just go get buckets regardless of what the opponent does defensively.
 
That’s not Avery Bradley.
 
That’s not Al Horford.
 
That’s not Kelly Olynyk.
 
You can search, poke and prod this roster all you want, and you'll come up empty when it comes to finding a player like that . . . other than Isaiah Thomas.
 
The fact the Celtics were able to avoid getting swept is a victory of sorts in itself. Boston’s coaching staff, as well as the front office, has repeatedly said that as talented as their team is, they aren’t on the same level of the defending champion Cavaliers.
 
And yet here we are four games into this series and the Celtics are basically a bad half of basketball away from being tied, 2-2.
 
It says a lot about their mental toughness, their ability to handle and navigate past adversity to give themselves a chance to be competitive against any team -- including the Cavs.
 
But their success this season has always been about the collective group, regardless of how many late-game shots Isaiah Thomas knocks down.
 
And while he has his shortcomings defensively, not having him available is going to hurt them in those late-game moments when they need a closer. It’s not a coincidence the Celtics were just 2-4 when he didn’t play during the regular season.
 
So as cool as it was for them to win Game 3 without Thomas, he’s still the straw that stirs the Celtics emotionally, bringing them to levels few think they're capable of reaching.
 
They were able to get by for one night without him, but remember this: It took Marcus Smart having an Isaiah Thomas-like game of 27 points and seven made 3’s, for them to win.
 
No one did anything remotely close to that Tuesday night.
 
They looked like the Isaiah Thomas-less Celtics, which is a look they don’t need this time of year.
 
Because that look is so not about winning.