Eastern Conference finals is a matchup of season-long favorite Celtics and proud underdog Pacers

Mon, May 20, 2024
NBA News (AP)

Eastern Conference finals is a matchup of season-long favorite Celtics and proud underdog Pacers

BOSTON (AP) - So much about the journey the Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers have taken to the Eastern Conference finals has been about what - or specifically who - they haven't had to face to get to here.

Top-seeded Boston mostly coasted to a 4-1 first-round series win over a Miami Heat team that played without Jimmy Butler, the player who'd tormented and broken the heart of the Celtics in Game 7 of last season's conference finals. They then posted another 4-1 series victory in the second round over an injury-ravished Cleveland Cavaliers team that didn't have All-Star Donovan Mitchell for the final two games.

The route for sixth-seeded Indiana has also had some notable hurdles removed.

The Pacers needed six games to earn a first-round win over a Milwaukee team missing Giannis Antetokounmpo. They then outlasted a New York Knicks team that was leading the series 3-2 before tripping over a rash of injuries that included star Jalen Brunson breaking his hand in the Pacers' lopsided Game 7 victory.

But neither Boston nor Indiana is focused on the narratives surrounding the paths they took to get to this point. They're here. And beginning with Game 1 on Tuesday night in Boston, it's now NBA Finals or bust for both.

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For the Celtics, that means blocking out reminders of the championship expectations that have hovered over them throughout the season.

"You just got to focus on what matters most," Celtics forward Jaylen Brown said. "That's your team. That's each possession in front of you. That's whatever your job is. ... Just be able to focus the mind on what matters because it's easy to get distracted or eluded from what the overall goal and what the target is when you start to entertain kind of everything that's going around you."

Indiana guard Tyrese Haliburton said the expectations they've had internally were always high.

"We had preseason camp in Nashville - just players, no coaches. That's what we communicated from the jump. That we expected to be here. This ain't a surprise to us," he said. "It's not a fluke. We expect this from our group. Once we added (Pascal Siakam) we knew we could really take off."

Pacers coach Rick Carlisle is fully embracing the idea that his team is the "uninvited guest" among the NBA's final four teams.

"We had some good fortune to get to this moment," he said. "But our guys did the work to put us in a position to be here."

OFFENSIVE SHOWDOWN

The Pacers reached their first conference finals since 2014 with an offense that has continued to put up historic numbers by pushing the pace.

Indiana topped the NBA with 123.3 points per game during the regular season, the sixth-highest average in league history. That was on top of it scoring 140 points a record 11 times.

The Pacers' regular-season offensive rating of 120.5 was second only to the Celtics (122.5). That flipped during the playoffs, with Indiana's ranking improving to No. 1 at 121.7, followed by Boston at 118.9.

Haliburton and Siakam drove the Pacers' attack against the Knicks. Haliburton averaged 21.3 points, shot 53.8% from the field and 43.9% from 3 in the series. Siakam averaged 20 points, was 52.8% from the field and 40% from 3. It made them the first duo to average 20-plus points, shoot above 50% from the field and above 40% from the 3-point line in a conference finals.

While Celtics All-Star Jayson Tatum has shown bouts of inconsistency this postseason, he's still averaging 24.3 points and 10.4 rebounds. He's also getting plenty of support from fellow All-Star Brown (23.1 points, 6.9 rebounds per game) and Derrick White, who's seen both his scoring (18.2 points) and 3-point percentage (43.5%) jump this postseason.

"It's going to be a challenge," White said. "They get up and down and we like to as well. It's going to be fun."

INJURY UPDATE

Celtics center Kristaps Porzingis will be out for Game 1 on Tuesday as he continues to recover from a strained right calf.

The 7-footer sustained his injury in Game 5 of Boston's first-round series with Miami. He then sat out the second-round matchup with Cleveland.

He has yet to participate in a full practice, but coach Joe Mazzulla said he is making progress.

"He's out there studying, learning, film, doing everything he can to come back as fast as he can," Mazzulla said

HISTORY LESSON

This will be the seventh playoff meeting between the Celtics and Pacers.

All six of the previous matchups (2019, 2005, 2004, 2003, 1992 and 1991) have been in the first round, with Boston winning four of the series.

The most recent matchup was in 2019, a 4-0 sweep by the Celtics.

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KYLE HIGHTOWER Sports writer covering Patriots, Celtics, Red Sox & Bruins. twitter mailto "
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