BOSTON – In September, when the Boston Celtics gathered for training camp, they had great visions of where the NBA's 2018-19 season could take them. With LeBron James on the West Coast, and with Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward once again healthy, the Eastern Conference felt like it was theirs, both this season and in the years to come.
Then the games started and the problems began. There was a regular season of 82 games full of attacks and starts, in which Boston would take a step forward, only that it would almost instantly make another one back.
There was a drama, created, in several cases, both by the Celtics themselves and by others, who repeatedly wrapped the team like a thick fog. And, at every step, there was one person, Irving, at the center of everything.
Sometimes, it would have been fair for someone to wonder if it was worth it. On Wednesday night, however, he provided the answer to anyone who was still uncertain:
Of course it was.
For the first time in a Celtics uniform, Playoff Kyrie arrived at TD Garden. And with 37 points, 6 rebounds, 7 badists and 40 minutes later, the Celtics left the building with a 99-91 victory over the Indiana Pacers and a 2-0 lead in this first-round playoff series, the better than seven.
"It's pretty quiet," Irving said of his first memorable playoff appearance while playing for the Celtics. "I am happy to be part of a lineage of great players who have performed some incredible performances here in the TD, as well as in the old Garden."
"But it felt good to be here in this position, playing in this arena, it's been a long journey to have those two knee surgeries and watch the team last year and finally have the opportunity to tie them up for the Boston Celtics in the NBA playoffs? There's nothing like that. "
There are also some things like Irving in full flight in the postseason. And in a game the Celtics could have easily lost, Irving did almost everything to make sure they did not.
When the Pacers threatened to blow up the game in the third quarter, as the Celtics had done to them in Game 1 on Sunday afternoon, Irving scored 10 of Boston's 16 points in the frame, and hit four of the seven Celtics. Shots, to keep them in the game.
Then, after Irving's teammates went on an 8-0 run to cut a deficit of 12 points to four, while he rested to start the fourth quarter, Irving came in and scored nine consecutive points to put the Celtics back to the front.
Indiana was also aware of that. And after seeing him take control of the game, the Pacers were determined to make sure he did not beat them in the final stretch.
And, in a certain sense, they achieved their goal. After Irving hit a free throw with 3 minutes, 12 seconds left, he did not throw a single shot for the rest of the game. But it was not a coincidence that, as the game ended, the rest of the Celtics found themselves with acres of space to operate.
The mere presence of Irving on the court, and the threat of him taking charge of him as he has done so many times in his career in those kind of moments, including a winning tray of the game against these same Pacers here at the end of the regular season. – It was enough to send the Indiana defense fight, and his teammates were happy to take advantage of it.
Suddenly, a team that is designed to take the ball to Irving in late and close situations instead made Jayson Tatum and Hayward shake free for baskets in the last minute to seal the Celtics' victory.
"Kyrie was amazing in his comeback, and when it's done that way, he's going to attract even more attention than he already draws, which is the same as anyone in the league," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. . "And so, in the last minutes of the game, he made the right move.
"I was really encouraged by the way we shared the ball, and I just made the right play, and then Kyrie was special," added Stevens.
The Celtics needed him to be special, and, even as he was, they still almost lost. The Pacers could not take the offensive in Game 1, accumulating an advantage of 11 points in the first half, but they continued with a third quarter of eight points and scored 74 points in total. Indiana made several strategic adjustments in Game 2 and was much more effective.
At least, that was the case until the fourth quarter. Indiana, in a nutshell, melted after leading Boston 82-70 with 11:20 to play in Game 2. The Pacers shot 2-of-19 in the third quarter in Game 1, and they continued to shoot 4 – by-17 from the field in the fourth quarter of Game 2. Indiana committed two inexcusable turnovers in the last 30 seconds to avoid having any chance of tying the game, and watched the Celtics ping the ball on the court before of Tatum throwing Support a dunk to put the game out of reach.
Overall, the Pacers missed 13 of their last 16 shots, while the Celtics outscored them 29-9 in the last 11:20 to complete a second consecutive return from a double-digit deficit to start the series. The 2019 Celtics are the fifth team to overcome double-digit deficits in the first two games of a playoff series in the last 20 postseason, and the first since the 2017 Celtics did the same against the Washington Wizards in the semifinals. of the Eastern Conference of that year.
Find everything you need to know about the first round of the playoffs here.
"We have to finish," said Pacers coach Nate McMillan. "We have to do a better job to finish games and situations like that … I have to do a better job, we all have to do a better job."
It's a credit to Indiana that, despite not having its own star, Victor Oladipo, and a limited list in terms of offensive production, the Pacers have been able to make these first two games on the road as competitive as they are.
But it's exactly against this type of opponent, and in this kind of situation, stars like Irving make the difference. That's why the Celtics were inclined to have the hurdles exchanged for him in the first place. That's why the Celtics hope to persuade him to stay when he becomes a free agent without restrictions this summer, and then, immediately, go back and look for the hurdles – using the many commercial badets available to him – to negotiate Anthony Davis and believe what they believe will be a contender for the title in the coming years.
The way in which the next weeks are shaken could very well determine if that reality is fulfilled or not. And, given the crazy season that the Celtics have had, it's much more likely that there will be a lot of bumps in the road before the Boston playoffs end.
Wednesday night, however, was a reminder that, as exhausting as it has been in recent months, having a talent like Irving ultimately makes it all worthwhile.