An Indiana Pacers team without Victor Oladipo can only create so many issues for the Boston Celtics in a one-and-done matchup. If you turn the affair into a seven-game series and provide the Celtics home-court advantage, then a Boston series win becomes more of a lock than Captain America dying at the end of Avengers: Endgame.
But this will not be the same Celtics team that blew out the Pacers in their last meeting or the one that won a 114-112 nail-biter the meeting prior.
That’s because the C’s won’t have Marcus Smart, who’s sidelined with what’s been reported as a torn oblique. By no means does this tip the scales in Indiana’s favor. However, it does make things more difficult for the Celtics — and could have residual effects on the C’s in the second round, assuming they advance.
Smart is best defined by his defense, particularly his physical approach; it allows him to challenge a wide array of opponents. His physicality also translates over to Boston’s offense and is the source of Smart’s countless hustle plays.
Given Aron Baynes is the only other Celtic who bodies up opponents in a similar manner, Smart is an essential piece against a Pacers team known for being one thing above all else: physical.
“We’ve talked all year about how impressive Indiana is with their physicality and commitment to being the best version of who they are, which means you have to play really well,” Brad Stevens said at practice on Saturday. “We know that. We know what the physicality and the competitive level is going to be like.
“I don’t think there’s any question. I think every team in the league would say that about Indiana. Their front line is terrific: strong, physical, tough. They all can put the ball on the floor. They all can shoot it and will shoot threes — and make threes. Those guys and then their wings. They have big, strong wings up and down the board, so when they get a matchup they go right to it. And they don’t hesitate.”
Although the Pacers’ are primarily built on their wings and big men — Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Thaddeus Young — Boston will need help from its guards in order to limit the offensive footprint of Indiana’s top threats throughout the series.
“We know that we got to contain their guards and that’s a lot on our guards to take that matchup one-on-one and be able to play them, so we’re able to get back and guard their bigs,” Baynes said. “It’s a full team effort being able to guard (Myles Turner). Our guards have to be physical and direct the ball. Our bigs have to be able to be up and communicate. If we start with that mentality, then usually we’re in a pretty good place.”
Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier will likely be the ones to fill the void. They each have a similar defensive rating (105.5 for Brown and 105.2 for Rozier) to Smart (105.5), making a major drop-off less likely. Rozier also has extra reason to push the envelope on defense. His increased role offers the perfect opportunity to prove his worth with free agency on the horizon.