Talent wins out in clutch situations. The Indiana Pacers found that out the hard way.
The Pacers were winning at halftime in three of the four playoff games they played against the Boston Celtics. Yet they lost all 4 games. Why is that?
Some bad quarters here and some terrible quarters there, for starters. But perhaps most importantly, they lost because they couldn’t perform in the clutch. Indiana finished the playoffs with an unholy -74.4 net rating in clutch time, a figure that I actually can’t fathom.
74.4! Negative! How can that even be possible?
The score in clutch situations, described by NBA.com as a situation in which the score is within 5 and there are less than 5 minutes to go in the game, was 25-9 Celtics across the whole series. That was over an 8-minute span, the longest amount of crunch time in any series.
Not that is is any solace for the Pacers, but they were able to play the Celtics close enough to get to crunch time nearly every game. But once they got there? They were horrible.
The root of basketball is putting the ball in the basket. That is the best place to start for the Pacers. They were 3/9 shooting in crunch time, including 0/4 on 2-point attempts:
Creating good shots was a huge problem for the Pacers all series long, and that issue was magnified to a large degree when each possession became more important. On that possession, the Pacers took a while to get into their offense, then the dual floppy set that Indiana ran didn’t produce a good look. That left the team with only ancillary actions to create a shot.
A Bojan-Sabonis pick and roll is the best option the team has given Victor Oladipo is hurt. Al Horford can shut down that action on his own, as he did in that clip (and all series long). The Boston center used his prowess on D to allow Jaylen Brown to recover, and Bojan had to force up a tough floater over Brown.
That was a theme. Bojan missed twice inside the arc down the stretch of Game 2. Horford was on the court for both. In fact, Horford, along with Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum, was on the floor for all of the Celtics clutch minutes. The Pacers only had Bojan and Turner in for all 8 minutes, the other spots were occupied by a platoon of players.
Perhaps that was part of the problem.
Turner and Bojan should be out there. If the game is close, you need Turner’s D in the game. Kyrie himself hyped up how good Turner was protecting the paint. Bojan should have been on the floor for his scoring, as we saw at the end of Game 2.
The other positions were all fluid, though I’m not sure that was the correct decision. Thad Young played 6 of the 8 minutes, Sabonis took his spot in the other two. The Sabonis/Turner pairing was a total disaster against Boston while Young was one of the only things that worked. It should have been Thad over Sabonis at the end of Game 3.
Wesley Matthews got 7 minutes despite being pretty lackluster all series long. Tyreke Evans actually showed an ability to get to the basket and break down the defense, a skill the Pacers desperately needed at the end of games. I would have leaned on him more.
Cory Joseph’s defense should have put him in over DC in pretty much any closing scenario. But CoJo’s offense wasn’t great in the series, so he would not have been a solution on the end of the floor where the Pacers were manhandled. Hindsight doesn’t hurt us there as it does at the other 2 spots.
Maybe those anecdotes don’t hold up. Tyreke did miss a clutch shot in the early part of the clutch proceedings of Game 4:
That possession had no penetration at all, the skill I just praised him for. The Celtics would score on the next possession and end the “clutch” proceedings of the game (until the final1.6 seconds).
In Game 3, they went with Sabonis and Turner for clutch time. When the duo shared the floor, the Celtics lead went from 2 to 7. There’s your ballgame.
In Game 2, the Pacers just didn’t take care of the ball or generate a good shot for the final minute of the game. It was a total meltdown.
And yet, here we are looking at the things the Pacers did wrong. Maybe they had the wrong personnel out there. Maybe they didn’t have the talent to generate a good look. Maybe.
However, that’s not the only way to look at it. Let’s flip the script and look at what Boston did right.
Al Horford defending anything and everything in the clutch. Gordon Hayward literally didn’t miss a shot in these scenarios, he was superb when the game was on the line. Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum both provided much-needed scoring production for the Celtics as they took care of obvious mismatches. Everyone added something.
And yet, perhaps the most subtle thing the Cs did well was perhaps the most important. They had 0 turnovers in clutch time. Indiana had just 2, but boy would like to have those 2 possessions back. The Celtics were composed and effective in the most important moments of the game, and it won them the series. They just performed better.
We could argue the semantics of the Pacers talent deficiencies and rotational decisions at the end of games for days. But the proof is in the pudding. When the game was on the line, talent won out. And that talent wore green and white jerseys.