Kyrie Irving, Balanced Celtics Beat Pacers 117-97 in 2019 NBA Playoff Preview

Kyle Newport@@KyleNewportFeatured ColumnistApril 6, 2019

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - APRIL 05: Kyrie Irving #11 of the Boston Celtics handles the ball against Cory Joseph #6 of the Indiana Pacers in the first half of a game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on April 5, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using the photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The Boston Celtics defeated the Indiana Pacers 117-97 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on Friday in an Eastern Conference showdown that had serious playoff implications.

Jayson Tatum led the way for Boston with 22 points. Kyrie Irving contributed 17 points and six assists, and Gordon Hayward added 21 points.

Myles Turner had 15 points in a losing effort for the Pacers.

With the victory, the Celtics broke a tie with the Pacers for fourth place in the East and now have a one-game lead for home-court advantage in the first round. The Philadelphia 76ers (49-30) now hold a 1.5-game lead over Boston and a 2.5-game lead over Indiana for the third seed.

              

Celtics Enter Potential First-Round Matchup with Pacers As Clear Favorites

Boston has been viewed as an underachiever throughout the season, but as the C's appear to be poised to meet the Pacers in the first round, they have to like their chances.

Only one game separates the two teams in the standings, but Boston has had the upper hand on Indiana this season. The Pacers, then with All-Star Victor Oladipo, defeated the Celtics in early November...by a single point.

Boston responded with victories by margins of 27, two and 20, with the latter two coming in the past week.

Having won five of their past six games, the Celtics are building momentum at the right time—and part of that recent success can be attributed to Hayward finding his rhythm.

Coming off a serious leg injury, Hayward struggled to regain his All-Star form early this season, especially as he had to adjust to coming off the bench. He averaged 11.2 points on 43.8 percent shooting in 53 games prior to the All-Star break.

He entered Friday night's contest averaging 15.7 points on 52.5 percent shooting over the past six games. Coming off a 25-point performance against the Miami Heat on Wednesday, Hayward went 9-of-9 en route to 21 points.

That performance caught plenty of people's attention:

"He's playing really well," Boston coach Brad Stevens said after the game. "He's attacking with great physicality. It's good that he's playing this way. He'll have a lot of opportunities where he'll make plays for himself, but moreso for others."

While Hayward credits time and reps for his recent surge, Irving has noticed his teammate has been more confident of late, per the Boston Herald's Mark Murphy:

"We're best when he's looking for his shot. He's a great facilitator. But we need G to score. I told him that, and I'm going to keep telling him to stay aggressive and be him and really be that 20-point scorer that he was. That takes a lot of pressure off me where I don't have to handle the ball as much and I can be kind of floating around the perimeter and cutting backdoor and just doing the little things that I can do to affect the game other than just having the ball in my hands and trying to score."

Boston is now 6-0 this season when Hayward scores 20-plus points.

Teams have known that they will have to slow down Irving and Tatum. Now, they have to worry about Hayward as well.

Indiana had no answer for Boston's balanced attack, as six different Celtics reached double figures. And the team was missing a couple of rotation pieces in Jaylen Brown (back) and Terry Rozier, who was limited to just seven minutes because of an illness.

Of course, having home-court advantage would also provide Boston with an edge before the series begins in mid-April. While there is an outside chance the C's could still catch the Sixers for the No. 3 seed, Brian Robb of the Boston Sports Journal noted the Celtics' magic number to secure the fourth seed, at worst, is down to one.

What's Next

Both teams will be back in action Sunday. Boston (48-32) will host the Orlando Magic at TD Garden, and Indiana (47-33) will host the Brooklyn Nets.

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