Indiana Pacers Exposed Boston Celtics’ Lone Achilles’ Heel

Boston Celtics weakness exposed as Buddy Hield shoots over Jayson Tatum

Getty Jayson Tatum attempts to contest a shot by Buddy Hield during the Boston Celtics' loss to the Indiana Pacers in the In-Season Tournament

The Boston Celtics have found no shortage of success during the 2023-24 NBA season, roaring out of the gates with five straight victories and compiling a 15-5 record.

By virtually every metric under the sun, they’ve been a veritable juggernaut. Per Basketball Reference, they join the youthful Oklahoma City Thunder as one of only two teams with top-10 marks in both offensive and defensive rating, checking in at Nos. 9 and 2, respectively. Even though they’ve played one of the league’s most difficult schedules, they’ve outscored opponents by a league-best 8.5 points per 100 possessions.

The C’s pass the eye test with aplomb, as well. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown remain near the top of the Association’s duo hierarchy, and they’re bolstered by a tremendous supporting cast that features Jrue Holiday, Kristaps Porziņģis (when his body is in working order), Derrick White, Al Horford and plenty more.

But even the best teams can have an Achilles’ heel, and the Indiana Pacers exposed the Celtics’ while knocking them out of the In-Season Tournament with a 122-112 victory on December 4.

The Boston Celtics Simply Can’t Force Turnovers

In defense of the Celtics, few squads have been capable of slowing down the Pacers’ Tyrese Haliburton-led offense. The breakout guard has been transcendent in his fourth NBA season, averaging a league-best 11.9 assists to only 2.4 turnovers and sparking an unstoppable scoring machine with his transition feeds and his ability to inspire intense cuts and lively ball movement with pinpoint feeds and anticipatory skills.

But the Celtics, despite the intensity with which they played while attempting to earn a trip to Las Vegas for the continuation of the In-Season Tournament, often looked helpless as the ball zipped past their outstretched arms.

Whereas the C’s turned the ball over 17 times, Indiana coughed up possession on just six occasions, continuing a troubling trend for the title hopefuls.

The Four Factors, as crafted by noted basketball statistician Dean Oliver and explained by Basketball Reference, summarize a team’s strengths and weaknesses by looking at shooting efficiency, rebounding, turnovers and free-throw generation on each end of the court. Boston is in or near the top half of the NBA in each of the offensive metrics, and the same is true for three of four on defense.

But when it comes to opponents’ turnover percentage, the narrative falls apart.

Only the lowly Detroit Pistons (10.6%) and Brooklyn Nets (10.0%) have forced turnovers on a lower percentage of the opposition’s possessions than the Celtics (10.8%).

The Celtics Have Overcome the Weakness Thus Far

To this point, that issue hasn’t reared its ugly head.

The Celtics have been one of the best teams in basketball, and their infrequent losses haven’t always been the result of their opponents taking near-perfect care of the rock. If anything, the Pacers were the exception. In the four other losses, the Philadelphia 76ers (12), Charlotte Hornets (13), Orlando Magic (18) and Minnesota Timberwolves (23) were far less judicious with their possessions, and those last two numbers are actually the most turnovers Boston has forced this season.

But this isn’t about what has come to pass so much as it is a warning.

Given the astronomical scoring in the NBA, gaining the edge on possessions is massive. Curtailing opponents’ opportunities is vital, whether through the prevention of offensive rebounds — the Celtics rank fourth — or by forcing turnovers.

The inability to do the latter hasn’t bit Boston too many times thus far, but it did in the most high-stakes game on the schedule to this point. It’s also no coincidence that the dropped game against a dangerous Sixers squad featured a similar story. Especially in the playoffs, when increasingly productive opponents have better reads on entrenched defensive schemes, the Celtics will have to do a better job disrupting passing lanes, keeping active hands in on-ball scenarios and capitalizing on mistakes.

Otherwise, this weakness, arguably the lone blemish on the early-season scorecard, might be the one that extends a title drought dating back to 2008.

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