In a showdown between two of the Eastern Conference's best teams, the Boston Celtics had no problem holding serve on their home court with a 135-108 victory over the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday.
TD Garden has been kind to the Celtics this season. They won all four games on this homestand and are 15-5 in Boston.
Marcus Morris and Jaylen Brown led the scoring barrage for Boston with 22 points each. Jayson Tatum had his first 20-point game since Christmas Day. Kyrie Irving had a quietly efficient night with 12 points on nine field-goal attempts.
Victor Oladipo ended up with 17 points and three rebounds but didn't have an assist for the first time this season.
Surging Celtics Ready to Take Over Eastern Conference
The Celtics' slow start this season left the door open for top contenders like the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors to surge to the top of the Eastern Conference.
Those teams were happy to take advantage, with the Raptors owning the NBA's best record (31-12) and the Bucks one game behind them (28-11) entering Wednesday. Even the Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers are still ahead of Boston in the standings.
But the Celtics are now rising from the ashes of those early woes to reclaim their spot as the team to beat in the conference. They have now won 15 of their last 20 games since a 10-10 start, and their upcoming schedule sets up nicely to keep that momentum going:
Tim Bontemps @TimBontemps
Dominant victory for the Celtics tonight over the Pacers. Boston has won seven of nine, and has guys up and down the roster round into form. With 10 of their next 12 games against losing teams, Celtics have a chance to get back on the kind of pace they were expected to from...
Just as important as that record is Boston's health status. Head coach Brad Stevens told reporters prior to Monday's game against the Brooklyn Nets that Aron Baynes could return from a broken finger in the middle of next week.
Gordon Hayward, who finished with 14 points and four assists in 22 minutes against the Pacers, was averaging 15.4 points, 4.8 assists and shot 50.0 percent in the previous five games.
Morris and Marcus Smart have been Boston's unsung heroes this season, especially since the end of November:
Chris Forsberg @ChrisForsberg_
So all the Celtics needed was Marcus Smart in the starting lineup and they became the NBA’s most unstoppable offense: Prior to 11/26: 27th, 104.6 offensive rating, 10-10 overall Since 11/26: 1st, 116.6, 14-5 And that was before hanging 68 1st-half points on NBA’s No. 2 defense
Brown is finding his rhythm with 15.9 points per game and a 60.0 shooting percentage in seven games since Dec. 27.
Even when things weren't going right for the Celtics, their defense never wavered. They entered Wednesday ranked fourth in defensive efficiency (105.4 points per 100 possessions), per Basketball Reference.
The offense has finally caught up with at least 110 points scored in nine straight games, including putting a hurting on Indiana's usually-stout defense:
All of this is happening for Stevens with 42 games remaining in the regular season. The Celtics beat the third-best team in the Eastern Conference by 27 points on a night when Irving wasn't much of a factor on offense because everyone around him was so good.
Pacers Must Find No. 2 Scoring Option to Maximize Oladipo's Talent
It's easy to excuse a loss like this for the Pacers. They were playing their fourth straight road game and second half of a back-to-back following Tuesday's win over the Cleveland Cavaliers.
But a deeper dive also exposes the biggest thing standing in the way of the Pacers being a very good regular-season team and legitimate title contender: a No. 2 scorer behind Oladipo.
Among teams currently in the Eastern Conference playoffs, Indiana only ranks ahead of the Miami Heat in offensive efficiency, per ESPN.com.
Oladipo leads the team in scoring (20 points per game), but he's not an efficient scorer with 17 attempts per game. His true shooting percentage of 53 is tied for 44th out of 78 qualified shooting guards, per ESPN.com.
The Celtics limited Oladipo to six points in the first half. He finally found a rhythm in the second half after Boston had blown the game wide open.
Domantas Sabonis has been excellent in his second season with the Pacers. The 22-year-old is averaging 14.9 points and a team-leading 9.6 rebounds per game, but his game is limited by playing close to the basket.
Indiana hoped it found shooting help in the offseason with the additions of Tyreke Evans and Doug McDermott.
McDermott has been fine in his role as a catch-and-shoot guy with a 40.9 percent success rate from three-point range, but he only averages 17.6 minutes per game.
Evans has been a massive disappointment, averaging just 10.1 points per game on 37.5 shooting coming into Wednesday's game. He showed both his good and bad sides against the Celtics, with the former coming on a drive to the basket early in the second quarter when the game was still close:
On the other end of the spectrum, Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix noted at the end of the third quarter Evans didn't seem to want to attempt a long three-point attempt:
If the Pacers want to take full advantage of Oladipo's ball-handling and playmaking skills, they need to find and establish a No. 2 scoring option behind him.
General manager Chad Buchanan has roughly one month until the trade deadline on Feb. 7, but the Pacers operate on a modest budget that could limit their options. Indiana's best hope could be for Evans to shoot 39.9 percent from three-point range like he did last season with the Memphis Grizzlies.
The Pacers will wrap up their five-game road trip Friday against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. The Celtics will begin a three-game road stretch Thursday against the Miami Heat.