How Pacers’ Game 2 second-quarter drought, poor rebounding underscore difficult path ahead

BOSTON — As Indiana Pacers coach Rick Carlisle called a timeout less than 90 seconds into the second quarter, backup point guard T.J. McConnell threw his hands in the air and then slammed them back down, smacking the side of his legs.

The Pacers had just allowed three consecutive offensive rebounds. After Celtics center Al Horford corralled two of his own misses at the rim, Jaylen Brown swooped in from the right corner to grab a 3-point miss from the opposite corner by Sam Hauser and break the tie at 27 to give Boston its first lead in more than nine minutes. Indiana had not competed hard enough to start the second quarter and it irked McConnell, one of the Pacers’ emotional leaders.

He had no way of knowing at that moment, but it was only just the beginning of one of the Pacers’ most frustrating nights this postseason. That trio of offensive rebounds was still near the start of a 20-0 run from the Celtics that spanned the end of the first quarter and the start of the second quarter. For six minutes and 29 seconds, the Pacers would be held scoreless as the Celtics took control of Game 2.

Indiana fought back and cut the lead to six points at halftime and even came within a single possession in the third quarter, but would lose, 126-110, as the Celtics took a 2-0 lead heading to Indianapolis for Game 3 on Saturday night.

For the Pacers though, it wasn’t just the loss that led to their discouraging night.

With 3:44 remaining in the third quarter, All-NBA point guard Tyrese Haliburton left the game and did not return.

After the game, Carlisle informed reporters Haliburton was suffering from left hamstring soreness, the same injury that kept Haliburton out 10 games in January and lingered throughout the season.

The Pacers were already heavy underdogs entering the series with a healthy roster — outside of Bennedict Mathurin who has been sidelined since early March — but any sort of serious limitations for Haliburton would put the Pacers in an untenable situation for the rest of the series, especially considering their performance in Game 2.

As the Pacers try to figure out their path forward, they will be forced to consider everything that occurred during the second quarter on Thursday

Their issues start with the poor defensive rebounding that initially frustrated McConnell and prompted Carlisle to call that timeout.

While it was a major talking point throughout the Pacers’ second-round series against the New York Knicks, who were the NBA’s best offensive rebounding team during the regular season, grabbing offensive rebounds is not always seen as one of Boston’s greatest strengths.

“These guys spread you out a little differently than New York does and they have great athletes, so they beat us to some balls,” Carlisle said after the game. “So, we’ve gotta flip that on Saturday.”

For the Pacers, defensive rebounding has been an issue throughout the entire season. They finished the regular season tied for 25th in defensive rebounding percentage, grabbing just 71.5 percent of opponents’ misses, according to Cleaning the Glass. It even ended up being a problem in multiple games of their first-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks, who were only 25th in offensive rebounding rate during the regular season.

“That led to a lot of their easy buckets,” Pacers center Myles Turner said after the game.

If they want any chance of beating the Celtics, the Pacers will have to clean up their work on the defensive glass, but that pales in comparison to their struggles offensively thus far in this series against the Celtics.

As this postseason run has progressed for the Pacers, Carlisle has deemed three of his team’s postseason losses as embarrassing or out of character in some way. Those three losses were the 109-94 Game 1 loss to the Bucks, the 115-92 Game 5 loss to the Bucks and the 121-91 Game 5 loss to the Knicks. On those three nights, Carlisle believed his team did not bring the requisite competitiveness needed for the postseason.

Outside of those three games, the Pacers were spectacular offensively in the first two rounds. This shouldn’t be a surprise considering Indiana was one of the NBA’s best offensive teams all season, but their lowest offensive rating in their other 10 games in the first two rounds was 123.2 in their 121-117 Game 1 loss to the Knicks. (For a reference point, the Pacers were second in offensive rating during the regular season at 121.6, per Cleaning the Glass.)

All season and postseason, when the Pacers have brought the necessary competitive fire, they have been able to score at an elite level.

That has not been the case against the Celtics. In Game 1, they scored just 114.3 points per 100 possessions. And in Game 2, they scored just 116.5 points per 100 possessions. Both offensive performances were well below their regular-season average and their offensive struggles have to be their most serious concern moving forward.

In the lead-up to Game 2, the Pacers talked at great length about how the Celtics’ defense. McConnell and Haliburton explained that the Celtics’ defensive plan is built around trying to stay in front of the ball and trying to remain solid as long as possible in possessions by switching and how if they wanted to beat the Celtics’ defense, they would need to be patient and execute deeper into the shot clock.



Pacers’ most-needed adjustment for Game 2 vs. Celtics? No more careless turnovers

After outscoring the Celtics, 27-25, in the first quarter, the Pacers’ offense struggled as they did not score for the first five minutes and 15 seconds of the second. Nesmith finally broke up the scoring drought with two free throws that came as a result of the Pacers’ 14th second-quarter possession.

In those first 14 possessions, the Pacers never had one that featured more than four passes.

Out of the timeout following the defensive rebounding disaster that led to three consecutive Celtics offensive rebounds for, McConnell called his own number. The possession featured zero passes.

The Pacers had three more possessions that featured only one pass and four more that featured two passes. One of the possessions with two passes became this turnover from Turner:

One of the two possessions that featured three passes turned into this 3-point attempt for Haliburton:

Over and over again, the Pacers did not break down the Celtics’ defense in any meaningful way and the Celtics ran away with Game 2.

To be clear, passing the ball a lot does not automatically make an offense good. There have been plenty of elite offenses that were built around not moving the ball and just letting incredible individual talents break down defenses. The Pacers, though, were not one of those elite offenses. They led the NBA in passes this regular season with 25,279 completed passes, or 308.3 passes per game.

Moving the ball from action to action and forcing defenses to keep up as players zipped around the floor was part of what made the Pacers so difficult to defend. Against the Celtics, the impact of their ball movement has been muted by the Celtics switching defense and willingness to use different non-traditional match-ups.

After watching Turner beat them in pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop actions and score 18 points in the first half of Game 1, the Celtics have opted to use smaller players on Turner. He has scored just 13 points in the last six quarters.

“They made a different lineup tonight, a switch tonight,” Turner said after Game 2. “I mean, their fives aren’t going to able to guard me, so they decided to put some of their smaller guys on me, and I wasn’t able to get as involved in the pick-and-roll, but (we’ll) watch the film, make adjustments and take it from there.”

If the Pacers want to come back down from a 2-0 deficit as they did against the Knicks, they will need their offense to come to life. That is going to be a difficult task against one of the league’s best defenses, but it will be especially difficult if Haliburton is unavailable or limited moving forward.

Required reading

Vardon: Pacers hope Tyrese Haliburton’s injury is just a ‘short-term aggravation’
Weiss: Celtics ‘embrace the chaos’ as they take control of Pacers’ speed in Game 2 win
King: Jaylen Brown, All-NBA? Maybe not, but Celtics lucky he’s better than ever

(Photo of T.J. McConnell and Pascal Siakam: Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)

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