INDIANAPOLIS — Their story has evolved swiftly, from an inspiring little run by a team besieged with adversity to a legitimate roll. And the Celtics have transformed themselves from a probable first-round playoff victim to perhaps a legitimate Eastern Conference contender in a matter of weeks.
With every reason to fold and prepare for the snowy trip back to Boston, the Celtics got past the officials, a vicious Pacers defense, and their own ineptitude to go on a stunning rally in the final four minutes to steal an 83-81 victory over Indiana Wednesday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Kevin Garnett fed Jeff Green for the winning layup with 0.5 seconds left for Boston’s first lead since the first quarter and the Celtics ended the game on an 11-0 run. Garnett was supposed to take the final shot but instead found Green streaking behind David West for the score.
Indiana was held scoreless for the final 4:36 following Paul George’s 3-pointer for an 81-72 lead. The Celtics had just rallied to cut the lead to 1 but George Hill countered with 8 points in 61 seconds, followed by George’s apparent dagger.
The Celtics’ effort was mistake-filled, and they looked discouraged after the Pacers led by 9. Yet, they valiantly began chipping away while refusing to allow Indiana to toss the ball in the paint to mammoth center Roy Hibbert.
Jason Terry began the run with a jumper, followed by an Avery Bradley layup off a George goaltend. Paul Pierce, having an off night, made a long 3-pointer to reduce the deficit to 81-79 with 2:33 left.
After the Pacers committed two turnovers and missed a jumper over the next 1:12, Garnett again passed up a jumper to find Bradley alone under the basket for the tying score. Indiana was handcuffed offensively by the Celtics’ bizarre combination of man- and zone defense, and they missed jumpers on consecutive possessions, setting up the final play.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers was ready to call a pick-and-roll for Garnett, but assistant coach Armond Hill advised Rivers to include Green.
“He rarely does this, and said, ‘This play worked in the first half so let’s run it again,’ ” Rivers said. “It was great, when everything worked out. Kevin was terrific; we set a nice back pick, and it was a little mixed up but we made a tough shot.”
Garnett won’t be confused with Tom Brady. His pass was high, forcing Green to leap, land, and go to the other side of the basket to convert the layup. Green was open because Pierce not only occupied his own man – George – he gobbled up West with a back screen. West made the mistake of going under the pick-and-roll, getting completely lost. Pierce did his best Matt Light impression to block two Pacers.
“I’m happy that it went in,” Green said. “It was a great execution, great draw up by Doc. I had to come down with it first, the pass was high. And I know I had to come down, gather myself, and go up strong.”
There was a sense of delight when the Celtics sprinted off the court after Pierce intercepted the Pacers’ final desperation pass, but also shock. They spent all night barking at officials, and were overmatched by Indiana’s physicality and aggressiveness.
Indiana, ranked first in the NBA in defensive field goal percentage and second in points allowed, collected nine steals – five from Lance Stephenson – while Hibbert blocked six shots. They pressured Bradley, forcing him into open-court mistakes. They blitzed the paint, hacking away at the ball when Pierce or Garnett attempted to head to the basket.
The Celtics scored just 58 points and shot 37.5 percent through three quarters, blood figuratively dripping from their noses, having been battered by the current No. 2 seed in the East. It wasn’t until they ignored the inconsistent officiating and began delivering shots of their own that they enjoyed success.
The Pacers missed 16 of 20 shots in the final period. Hibbert, a behemoth with 12 points and 10 rebounds in the first half, didn’t score in the second half, and the Pacers began pointing fingers after defensive breakdowns.
The Celtics are 13-4 since Rajon Rondo sustained a torn right anterior cruciate ligament and are 1½ games behind the fourth-seeded Nets in the conference standings. That fact the Celtics went 2-0 on perhaps their most difficult back-to-back set of the season wasn’t lost on Garnett.
“This is the one of the best teams in the league, they’re playing well and they’re playing well together,” Garnett said of the Pacers. “I thought all game they wanted to play bully ball. They were very firm and I thought we did a good job of adjusting to that firmness. As the game went on, we started to adjust, started to impose our will a little more. We hit shots and executed plays when we had to.”