Celtics-Pacers: 5 things to watch in Game 2, including how Boston handles Al Horford being hunted

After a Game 1 of the 2024 NBA Eastern Conference finals perhaps best described as chaotic, here are a few things to keep an eye on as the Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers get set to tip off Game 2 at TD Garden on Thursday:

Indiana head coach Rick Carlisle had his Pacers repeatedly attack Al Horford in Game 1 — especially in the second half — trying to drag Boston’s center out to the perimeter and into the action by using his man to set screens on the ball.

At first, it was Myles Turner, who is shooting 47.3% from 3-point range in the postseason and can blister opponents playing drop coverage by alternating pick-and-pop launches and hard rolls to the rim:

Later, after Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla juggled the matchups so that superstar forward Jayson Tatum was guarding Turner, it was Pascal Siakam, a dangerous one-on-one scorer and playmaker whose in-between game has been money in these playoffs — 55% from floater range and 48% on long midrange attempts, according to Cleaning the Glass:

And sometimes, it was whichever Pacer the 37-year-old Celtic had tried to hide out on after pre-switching away from the one who was trotting up toward Tyrese Haliburton to set a pick:

No matter who was responsible for getting Horford into space and under the microscope, Indiana largely feasted on the opportunities it created once he was there. Pull-up 3s against the drop, practice jumpers from the foul line, ankle-jellying stepbacks, calm-as-you-like drives all the way to the rim — the Pacers generated great look after great look against a Celtics defense that finished the regular season third in points allowed per possession and entered Tuesday ranked third in the postseason, as well.

Horford can stay in front and sliding with Indiana drivers on the perimeter, as he proved with a couple of blocks, including a huge one on Andrew Nembhard with 2:31 to go in overtime:

It’s very much an open question, though, whether he can more consistently hold up under such repeated pressure — and, for that matter, what Mazzulla and Co. can do to alleviate it.

There’s an awful lot of responsibility on the plate of the oldest player remaining in the postseason in the absence of injured center Kristaps Porziņģis; after averaging a career-low 26.8 minutes per game during the regular season, Horford’s up to 31.8 since Porziņģis went down, and the 39:35 he logged in Game 1 was the most he’s played in nearly 16 months. Given how pivotal a role Horford plays in Boston’s offensive spacing and defensive alignments without Porziņģis, you can bet the Pacers are going to keep trying to force him into the action and find out if Boston’s got any better answers than the ones it showed in Game 1.

Boston, MA - May 21: Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown scores over Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner in the first quarter of Game 1 of the 2024 Eastern Conference Finals. (Photo by Danielle Parhizkaran/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Boston opened Game 1 clearly intent on being opportunistic about pushing the ball whenever it could. Running off steals led to dunks and layups. Running off misses led to more layups. Running off makes led to — you guessed it — layups.

All that early offense produced a 12-0 start. But it also set the terms of engagement firmly in Indiana’s comfort zone — a tempo that fit much more neatly into the way the Pacers like to generate offense and have been excellent at generating offense, than the pace at which Boston’s been the best team in basketball all season long.

In what might be a related story, after missing their first six shots as they settled into the game, the Pacers scored on seven of their next eight possessions, poured in 64 points over the next 20.5 minutes on 67.5% shooting and put the fear of God into every Celtics-loving soul packing the grandstand at TD Garden.

When Boston regained control in the third quarter, it did so by playing through Tatum and Jrue Holiday, playing mismatch ball against Indiana’s guards and forcing the Pacers to navigate screens and size:

Those isolations, post-ups and pick-and-rolls — and the free throws they generated when Indiana had to try to ramp up their physicality to deal with Boston’s advantages in that arena — fueled a 14-2 run that put the Celtics back up by double-digits. The Pacers would charge back, of course, as they did throughout a nip-and-tuck Game 1. That stretch felt notable, though: a reminder that, as much fun as it is to play the up-and-down, free-flowing style that Indiana favors, Boston’s best bet to maintain its edge in this series might be by embracing the grind.

Jrue Holiday has sacrificed a ton in his first season in Boston. His touches and field-goal attempts per game, average time of possession and usage rate were all at or near career lows. He handled the ball in the pick-and-roll and attacked in isolation far less frequently than he ever had and spent far more time firing catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, because that’s the role that Mazzulla needed him to play to create one of the most efficient offenses in NBA history. He wound up playing a more varied defensive role, too — often guarding centers to allow Porziņģis, Horford or Luke Kornet to stay stationed closer to the basket for rim-protection purposes and sometimes manning the middle of a matchup zone that functioned as a curveball to wrong-foot offenses that had been seeing a steady diet of either drop coverage or switching.

The 15-year veteran handled that adjustment and performed in that more circumscribed role beautifully throughout the season, helping transform the Celtics into the regular-season powerhouse and odds-on title favorite they’ve become. But in Game 1, with offense at a premium and the Celtics in need of bucket-getters to match the Pacers’ firepower, Holiday came through:

Holiday’s postseason résumé is a little bit checkered. He shot 40% from the field and 30% from 3-point range across three playoff runs with the Bucks. He shot 35% from the floor in Round 1 against Miami. He had a whisper-quiet four points on 2-for-7 shooting in Boston’s Game 2 loss to the Cavaliers in Round 2. But he started to round into form over the final three wins against Cleveland, and with his best performance of this postseason — 28 points on 10-for-16 shooting, seven rebounds, eight assists, three steals, +7 in 48 minutes — Jrue offered a reminder that while he can be a trick-or-treat contributor at times, he’s also a two-time All-Star capable of a hell of a lot more than just spotting up in the corner.

Hey, Celtics? Hey, Pacers? C’mon, man:

It’s the Eastern Conference finals. Win four games here and you’re playing for the whole friggin’ thing. I get that you’re the best offenses that anyone’s ever seen and everything, and I don’t mean to give short shrift to the defensive effort that helped produce some of these miscues. But these turnovers … good Lord, man. Let’s go ahead and tighten up before Game 2, shall we?

A game like Game 1 — where the heavy underdog visitor is so close to winning, only to kick the game away, and where the heavy favorite host is so close to watching its dreams turn to ash, only to be saved from itself by an act of God, or at least God briefly dressed as Jaylen Brown — is a rare and wild thing. (I loved this line from longtime friend of the program Tom Ziller: “It’s like the Nicene Creed of heartbreak.”)

It would be understandable for the Pacers to come away from Game 1 feeling like they’d just blown what might be their best chance to topple Goliath. It would also be understandable for them to feel emboldened to push even harder, having proven capable of pushing the title favorite to the absolute brink.

Likewise, it would be understandable for the Celtics to be somewhat braced after having seen their life flash before their eyes like that. But it would also be understandable for them to feel convinced that they’ve proved their mettle, having taken an opponent’s best shot square on the chin, walked through it, landed the necessary haymakers of their own and finished with their hand raised in victory.

These are wildly competitive professional athletes who wouldn’t have reached this point in their respective careers without supreme self-confidence; these are also, for the most part, young men given to the same bouts of self-doubt, anxiety, nerves and nettlesome Big Feelings as the rest of us mere mortals. How quickly each side can process the emotional heft of how this series started — or, failing that, at least stow it away nearly beneath their bench, and be able to come out with clear minds, full hearts and sharpened intent — could wind up playing as large a role in how it continues as any X's-and-O's adjustment that either Mazzulla or Carlisle can make. It’s a game played by humans, after all.