The 2019 NBA playoffs are here. They begin Saturday, April 13th, 2019. The Boston Celtics were good enough in the 2018-19 season to obtain homecourt advantage for the first round of the playoffs which for them begin Sunday, April 14th 2019. This year, the underperforming Celtics will begin their playoffs against the Indiana Pacers.
Tale of the tape
After pushing LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers in a six-game series in 2018, the Celtics were expected to either be at least an elite contender in the East or top of the class in the East. It should have been easy, with their only challenge being to integrate both Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward - two all-star talents - into the side.
Irving had missed last year's playoffs through knee surgery, while Hayward sustained a gruesome leg injury five minutes into the new campaign. However, adding more talent doesn't always mean improved chemistry and the Celtics failed to really gel as a unit in the 2018/19 season. Despite their cohesion issues, they managed to win 49 games and were 28-13 at home but 21-20 on the road.
As for their first-round opponents, the Pacers were 48-24 and finished fifth, to the Celtics' fourth placed finish in the East. They might have finished significantly higher in the rankings, had their star and reigning NBA MIP Victor Oladipo not suffered a season-ending injury just before the All-Star break.
They equalled their win total from last year, but really want to make a statement this year after three consecutive first-round defeats. It will be tough starting this year's playoffs on the road, not least against Boston. They were a sub-par 19-22 on the road this past season and historically, have lost three of their five first-round playoff series against the Celtics.
Boston Celtics starters:
The Celtics are likely to start Kyrie Irving, Terry Rozier, Al Horford, Aron Baynes, and Jayson Tatum.
Indiana Pacers starters:
It is likely the Pacers will start Darren Collison, Wesley Mathews, Myles Turner, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Thaddeus Young.
Expectations, why and overall predictions:
Ultimately, Boston will be expected to win this series - but it won't be easy up against the hard-playing Pacers. One concern for Boston is that while they were one of the league's best at moving the ball and recording assists, their star player is not a natural in this era of positionless basketball.
Irving is a scoring point-guard and in order to do so, he needs the ball in his hand. So while the Celtics averaged 26.3 assists per game and 354 passes per 24 minutes of possession, Irving still dominates the ball too much. His ability to break down defences off the dribble should be utilised at the back end of shot clocks as a safety valve to avoid shot clock violations.
Player breakdown - Horford's impact, Oladipo's presence missed
Boston will need to make shots. Their roster is heavily built around perimeter play and their shots are also from outside. If Al Horford is not productive inside, they could struggle if shooting the ball poorly. Horford averages 16.9 ppg and 5.2 apg, but his frontcourt backup Aron Baynes averages just 4.4 field goal attempts per game and 5.6ppg. As a team, they were 23rd in the league with just 44.8 points in the paint per game.
The Celtics were seventh in the NBA at shooting the long ball at 36.5%. What will hurt is that Marcus Smart (36.4%) is sidelined with a torn oblique and will miss the first two rounds of the playoffs, should Boston last that long.
Indiana are a hard-working team and without Oladipo, they had seven double-digit scorers on the team this season. Naturally, they need everybody to contribute and share the ball well as they averaged 26 assists per game, which placed them ninth in the league this past season.
The Pacers do struggle to score overall as they averaged just 108ppg, 22nd across the association. It would also help if Tyreke Evans was able to rediscover his old game, contributing more than the 10.2ppg he averaged during the regular season.
As the Celtics have homecourt advantage for the series, this game will be played in Boston. Should they suddenly rediscover the magic which made them so potent this time last year, they should handle Indiana fairly easily without having to worry about Oladipo. However, even with Irving and Hayward they have underperformed. Their internal struggles have also been made public, with players seemingly eager to find better environments in which to play.
Indiana must play together as a unit and trust each other, if they are to get wins against an unpredictable Celtics team, although I expect Boston to prevail by a five-point scoreline in game one.