Home News Juggernaut Celtics await in ECF as Knicks, Pacers slug out second-round series

Juggernaut Celtics await in ECF as Knicks, Pacers slug out second-round series



The prize awaiting the victor of the Knicks and Pacers’ second-round slugfest is a meeting in the Eastern Conference Finals with basketball’s biggest juggernaut.

That would be the Boston Celtics, who, after rolling to an NBA-best 64-18 record in the regular season, booked their ticket to the third round of the playoffs with a series-clinching victory against the undermanned, overmatched Cleveland Cavaliers in Wednesday night’s Game 5.

It’s the third year in a row the Celtics advanced to conference finals, and the sixth time in eight years.

“It just shows the character of the team, the organization,” Celtics star Jayson Tatum said Wednesday of the sustained success. “People might think it’s a given that we’re supposed to be here, but I give a lot of credit to everybody in the front office, the coaching staff, the trainers, the guys that hand out the equipment, the ball boys, the cooks, the chefs, the security team. We’re all in this together.”

Now in his seventh NBA season, Tatum is set to appear in his fifth conference finals. His All-Star running mate, Jaylen Brown, is about to appear in his sixth. The Celtics are yet to win a championship with Tatum or Brown, coming closest in 2022, when they lost in six games in the NBA Finals to the Golden State Warriors.

They hope this year is different. After last year’s trip to the conference finals ended with a disappointing loss in Game 7 to the Miami Heat, the Celtics reloaded in the offseason, adding battle-tested point guard Jrue Holiday and mismatch-nightmare center Kristaps Porzingis to the dynamic duo of Tatum and Brown.

The Celtics won seven more games than any other team in the regular season. They went 37-4 at home. At no point did they suffer more than three losses over a seven-game stretch. An opponent would have to beat them four times out of seven, of course, to eliminate them in a postseason series.

Boston breezed through the first two rounds of the playoffs, disposing of the Jimmy-Butler-less Heat and the Cavaliers, who by the end were without calf-compromised Donovan Mitchell, in five games apiece.

The Celtics now get at least three days off, and possibly more depending on how the remaining series affect the TV schedule. That should help Porzingis, who missed the past six games with a calf strain and hopes to return during the conference finals.

The Knicks and Pacers, meanwhile, continue their hard-fought series Friday night. The Knicks lead 3-2, but both losses came in Indiana, where Game 6 is set to take place.

The Pacers have won 10 games in a row at home, meaning that even if the Knicks ultimately advance, they very well might have to play a Game 7 at Madison Square Garden. That scenario would guarantee the Celtics six days of rest before they host Game 1 of the conference finals on Tuesday.

A healthy Porzingis would further bolster Boston’s enviable depth and add another weapon in which to wield. Originally drafted fourth overall by the Knicks in 2015, the sharp-shooting, 7-2 Porzingis averaged 20.1 points, 7.2 rebounds and a team-leading 1.9 blocks during his first regular season with Boston.

With or without Porzingis, the Celtics can beat opponents in a variety of ways. This postseason, the do-it-all Tatum is averaging 24.3 points, 10.4 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game, all of which lead the team. Brown is right behind him with 23.1 points per game and Derrick White is averaging 18.2.

Holiday, who won a championship with the Milwaukee Bucks three years ago, scored in double-figures in six of the last seven games; hauled in at least six rebounds in five of them; and ranks second on the team with 4.1 assists per game this postseason.

Forced into starting duty with Porzingis out, 37-year-old center Al Horford exploded for 22 points, 15 rebounds and five assists in Boston’s Game 5 win on Wednesday.

“If you want to win, you’ve got to do whatever it takes,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said after advancing past Cleveland. “You’ve got to be open-minded and have the humility to understand that’s going to look different every night. … We just have to keep that up. Every game’s going to be different. Every series is going to be different.”

Boston boasts a level of continuity the other Eastern Conference contenders cannot match. Tatum and Brown have played seven seasons together. Now in his second stint with Boston, Horford is set to appear in his fifth conference finals with the Celtics and the third in a row. White, too, has been part of the past three playoff runs.

The 64 wins this season ranked fourth in Celtics history. That’s significant for a franchise that’s won 17 championships and employed all-time greats such as Larry Bird and Bill Russell.

“We all impact each other to help winning, and build this culture that we have,” Tatum said of the Celtics’ current iteration. “Everybody should be proud of themselves. Obviously, it’s not the end all, be all. We want to win a championship, but we’re doing something right.”

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