AP NEWS

Strong Second Half Lifts the Celtics

April 15, 2019

BOSTON -- In the weeks leading up to the start of the NBA Playoffs, the Boston Celtics didn’t shy away from voicing their belief that the postseason would offer them a fresh start, a chance to wash away an up-and-down, underachieving 82-game sample.

Sunday afternoon marked the beginning of this “new season” for the Celtics. Their sentiments were expressed clearly in a pregame hype video on the TD Garden jumbotron before the opening tip of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference first-round series with the Indiana Pacers.

Words are one thing, but actions carry a lot more weight. Only one Celtic walked the walk for the entire game and that would be forward Marcus Morris, who finished with a game-high 20 points to go with seven rebounds in 29 minutes off the bench to help fourth-seeded Boston earn an 84-74 victory over the No. 5 Pacers and take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.

Morris bailed the Celtics out of a potentially embarrassing spot. If not for his 15 first-half points, the C’s would’ve undoubtedly been in a much worse predicament than trailing 45-38 at the break in an old-school, defensive-minded contest. During the first two quarters, Celtics players not named Marcus Morris shot a combined 10-for-33. The team had only 13 made field goals and nine turnovers. The boo birds were already out, thinking the same frustrating squad that went 49-33 during the regular season had shown up to the postseason.

But Morris kept his team in striking distance.

“Marcus was great,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “You saw that coming in the last two days of practice. He was terrific on Thursday in practice when we went live. I think he probably benefited as much as anybody from being out for a couple of the last regular season games -- I think two of the last four or two of the last three. I thought he did a really good job and we need him to. He played big and strong and rebounded the ball for us on the defensive end, and then he’s a hard guy to guard with bigs because he spreads the floor for you.”

Morris brought the intensity on both ends of the floor from the moment he checked in.

“I just tried to enter the game and stay aggressive,” said Morris, who averaged 13.9 points and 6.1 rebounds, while starting 53 of his 75 regular-season games. “I had a couple bigs guarding me and just trying to space the floor and just read their closeouts, and they were closing-out pretty short, so just letting the game come to me. I was just trying to come in and make an impact.”

In the second half, the rest of his team followed his lead, particularly defensively.

Boston held the Pacers to just eight points in the third quarter and took a 64-53 lead into the fourth. Indiana missed its first 11 field goal attempts of the third and didn’t convert a field goal until there was 3:28 left in the frame. The Celtics used a 22-3 run to take command of the contest, as superstar guard Kyrie Irving (20 points, seven assists, five rebounds) scored eight in the third. Terry Rozier threw in a 27-footer (his only field goal) at the buzzer to send the sellout crowd into a frenzy and assure that the Pacers’ spirit was broken.

Boston’s advantage ballooned to 22 (84-62) late in the fourth.

″(Morris) is a guy that really establishes their defense,” said Indiana head coach Nate McMillan. “He gets after the best player and they feed off it. It just gives them depth with him being out there in that lineup.”

With Boston’s heart and soul of the defensive end, Marcus Smart, out with a left oblique tear, Morris is perhaps the player who best embodies toughness for the Celtics. He fought for loose balls and helped the C’s win the rebounding battle in emphatic fashion, 55-42.

Of course, Morris can stroke it, too. He made 3-of-8 from 3-point land and got himself to the line for nine free throw attempts in the first half.

“He just brought a really intense veteran mindset,” said Irving of Morris. “Just being able to go out there and impact the game. He is not so much about scoring as much as he is the attitude coming in and really just throwing himself into the game. I appreciated that. I think we all did.”

Jayson Tatum had 15 points (6-for-11) for Boston and Al Horford registered a double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds. Indiana had just two players in double figures, led by reserve guard Cory Joseph’s 14 points.

The Pacers will not be able to match the Celtics’ talent in this series, especially with Victor Oladipo out after right knee surgery. Indiana’s best plan is to muck up the game, slow it down and take care of the ball. The Pacers allowed the least amount of points per game during the regular season (104.7).

“I thought they got physical with us,” said McMillan of the Celtics. “I thought we came out and played that third quarter like the first quarter, as if we thought we were going to have our way. They turned up the intensity and we didn’t respond to that.”

Follow Matt Langone on Twitter @MattLangone