INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Boston played with the balance needed in the postseason.
Now the Celtics have to keep it up for another month to see if they will get there.
Tyler Zeller scored 18 points, three of his teammates added 16 and the surging Celtics held off late charge for a 93-89 victory over the Indiana Pacers on Saturday night that could have big postseason implications.
Boston has won four straight and six of seven to move within a half-game of Charlotte for the No. 8 seed in the East.
“The greatest team you can become is the team that just plays the right way on the next play,” coach Brad Stevens said. “You know they’re going to make a run. You just kind of wait for your opportunities on offense and you all play as well as you can defensively together. That’s the way we approached it.”
The homecoming for Zeller and Stevens couldn’t have turned out any better.
Zeller started fast and wound up 8 of 10 from the field with seven rebounds.
Stevens, who started his coaching career a few miles down the road at Butler, took a page right out of the Hoosier State’s playbook. His team shared the ball, defended, went toe-to-toe when necessary and continually found answers every time Indiana challenged them.
Brandon Bass, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder each scored 16 points. Bass finally sealed the win by making two free throws with 5.3 seconds to go, ending a three-game losing streak in Indiana and giving Boston a critical 2-1 series lead with the final matchup set for April 1 at Boston.
And Boston did all that against the hottest team in the league.
“We stuck with the game plan,” Crowder said. “Tough games really help your team out especially late in the season when you’re trying to make a playoff push. We know it’s going to be tough, but we’ll stick with it.”
The Pacers tried but failed to follow the same plan on a rare off night.
George Hill rallied Indiana (30-35) by scoring 24 of his season-high 30 points in the second half. He also had eight assists and five rebounds. C.J. Miles finished with 13 points, while C.J. Watson and Rodney Stuck each added 12 points.
It wasn’t enough as Indiana’s season-high winning streak was snapped at seven. The Pacers remained 3 1/2 games behind Milwaukee for the No. 6 playoff spot but saw their lead over Charlotte cut to a half-game.
“It was just a tough game for us,” David West said. “We couldn’t get a good rhythm or flow. We cut the game close a couple times. We weren’t able to execute well enough to get a win.”
Boston took control with a 17-4 first-half run that gave it a 32-20 second-quarter lead.
Indiana, which looked more like the team playing the second night of a back-to-back than Boston, spent the rest of the night playing catch-up. They got within 45-37 at halftime and 49-48 early in the third quarter.
But the Celtics steadied themselves, took a 67-60 lead after three and extended the lead to 77-66 on Marcus Smart’s 3-pointer with 8:03 left.
The Pacers got back in the game with a 10-3 run and finally got within a basket on Stuckey’s 3 with 5.8 seconds to go. But Bass sealed it by making two free throws.
“We knew it was going to be a grind,” Crowder said. “We were on a back-to-back and those guys have been playing well. When it got late, we got the stops we needed.”
Celtics: The most impressive part of Boston’s recent surge might be this: The Celtics have moved into playoff contention despite using 27 different starters this season. “It’s amazing he’s got them playing as well as they are with so much turnover,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said, referring to Celtics coach Brad Stevens.
Pacers: One day after Paul George told reporters he didn’t want to mess up the team chemistry, Vogel insisted George’s return would only help Indiana, not hurt. “The notion that he would disrupt us is laughable,” Vogel said. “That’s just him being selfless, being complimentary of his teammates.”… Indiana has lost 12 games by five or fewer points this season.
Celtics: Host Philadelphia on Monday.
Pacers: Host Toronto on Monday.
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