BOSTON — While the Raptors and Sixers failed to hold on to their home court advantage on Saturday, the Boston Celtics opened the 2109 NBA Playoffs in triumph at TD Garden. This is technically the Bruins’ place, mind you. The seats are yellow and black, as is the paint job inside. Those happen to be Indiana Pacers colors as well, but it was all green on Sunday at the start of what Celtics fans hope is a long postseason run.
“Steal one, that’s always an away team’s dream,” Kyrie Irving (20 points, 7 assists and 5 rebounds) said after an 84-74 win at home on Sunday. “But as a home team you have a lot of pressure to go out and perform in front of your home team’s fans.”
Seventeen championship banners hang over the parquet here. From the court, they loom hauntingly, lingering as a reminder of the expectations placed on the team that plays below. The Celtics entered the year with championship aspirations and settled for inconsistency and occasional struggles on both ends of the floor, leading to a 4-seed that barely earned them an extra home game next to the Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge in the first round.
In the first half on Sunday it seemed like the fans were getting more of the inconsistency that will likely put them on the road to start future playoff series this spring. Boston was sloppy, with passes thrown to no one and the Pacers finding easy baskets inside with clean cuts and plenty of space. Wesley Matthews cooked from three in the first frame. The periods of silence following Pacers baskets were as punctuated as the roars that came when the Celtics found their way to points in the low-scoring affair. It was a first half of patience for those wearing the green shirts left for them on their seats.
Boston as a sports town is going through one of the greatest runs in modern history. A “what have you done for me lately” attitude has never been more justified for Celtics fans frustrated by what’s been a lackadasical effort at times this year. This is a city where Patriots Super Bowl 53 champions merchandise was on clearance at the Fenway Target before the Red Sox got their World Series Champion rings in their home opener. A day before the Celtics opened the postseason the Bruins were still advertising tickets still available for their second home game against the Toronto Maple Leafs that night. Losing here stands out.
At some point frustration may lead to the Celtics crowd growing critical of their squad, as happened in Philadelphia on Saturday, but it never came on Sunday afternoon. They cheered Larry Bird out of his seat during a break in action during the second quarter. Even Robert Kraft, who will soon head to trial for soliciting prostitution before the Patriots’ AFC Championship game in January, got a huge ovation from the crowd. There wasn’t a single boo to be heard during the periods where the game looked more like a messy NCAA Tournament matchup more than an NBA Playoffs showdown. And perhaps that faith, and the Celtics’ experience with failure this year, has prepared them for these moments.
“Throughout the regular season we’ve been in positions like that with the energy and the attitude that you just turn that page,” Kyrie Irving said after the game. “It’s that next play mentality. We weren’t shooting well, we weren’t doing the right things. But it’s a series. Anytime during the game things can happen, anyone can come in and make an impact.”
Equating what followed on the floor to anything happening around it can be irresponsible. Momentum is a fickle thing, and some argue it doesn’t exist at all. But the TD Garden crowd kept coming alive and, eventually, the Celtics followed suit.
It started on the defensive end, where they put the clamps on the Pacers, and later the shooting came around as well. The Celtics went on a 26-8 run in the third quarter, going from seven down at the half to a 64-53 lead that was never threatened in the fourth. Marcus Morris had five of his 20 points in the frame, while Irving had eight. Terry Rozier leapt in jubilation after his three with less than a second left capped the scoring outburst in a game where neither team cracked 90.
The Pacers claimed they simply stopped shooting well in the third, but it could have played out differently for any number of reasons. In the second quarter Thad Young, who earlier blocked Al Horford from behind at the rim, thought he had a clean steal of Gordon Hayward and what would have been an easy bucket to put the Pacers up 12. But the whistle blew for the foul, Rozier hit a three and the Pacers significantly thinner lead slipped away in the third.
“That’s why I was so mad,” Young said after the game. The 12-year veteran did offer some refreshing perspective in the loss: the official who called the foul went back, looked at it and later admitted to him the steal was clean.
“I think that’s one of the biggest things we as players have to understand: they’re not perfect, we’re not perfect. They’re going to miss calls,” Young said. “Right after that play, they hit a three and that can be a momentum shifter. Hopefully that doesn’t happen like that the rest of that series, but we just have to move on.”
There are intangibles and fortunate whistles, and then there is just plain hard work. That was Jaylen Brown on Bojan Bogdanovic in the middle of that third quarter run. Brown got caught scrapping with Bogdanovic to the right of the hoop before the Pacers inbound at the five minute mark. Officials whistled things dead and separated the two as the crowd roared. Brown got even lower on Bogdanovic off the inbound, fought through the screen and picked off a pass intended for the Croatian at he top of the key, setting up a Kyrie Irving trip to the line for two free throws on the other end.
Brown and Bogdanovic battled all night, getting into it on fast breaks and fighting for position before and after the whistle. It came to a head later in the fourth when Brown battled through another screen at the top of the key and then shoved Bogdanovic, drawing a crowd and earning a technical foul with 3:20 to play. In a different game, that lapse in judgement may have been more consequential. Irving and other Celtics helped calm their young teammate down on the floor, and the game finished without incident.
Afterward, the Celtics biggest star said Brown “had the right to do what he did” given the physical play, but explained in postgame that moments like that need to fuel the later games of the series.
“That’s the maturity of this league. We all have instances when you’re challenged, and it’s all about how you respond,” Irving said. “We’re in a long series with these guys and emotions can get the best of you. But once you settle in and let all that go it’s time to move on to the next thing.”
Irving, who has reflected on leadership on multiple occasions this season, tried his best to provide a veteran voice at the start of Boston’s postseason grind.
“In that moment I’m just like ‘JB you’re good, I understand your frustrations but it’s time to move on,'” Irving said. “That’s always going to be my advice in these series: anything can happen but you can only control what you can control, so you just go out there and perform.”
On Sunday, the Celtics exercised that control over the Pacers in holding serve at home, which is a task that’s proven more difficult than expected to start this postseason.