Celtics-Pacers Predictions: Anonymous scout, coach and executive weigh in on Eastern Finals

– Josh Robbins, Sam Amick, Darnell Mayberry

When the Boston Celtics face the Indiana Pacers in the 2024 Eastern Conference Finals, it will be a matchup few people expected to see when the regular season began.

Led by Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and fueled by key offseason additions Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porziņģis, the Celtics were considered co-favorites to win the NBA title by league general managers. On the other hand, the Pacers fell to the last minute in the East despite the presence of promising point guard Tyrese Haliburton. But here they are.

Boston, which lost Porziņģis to a calf injury during the first round, defeated the Miami Heat in the first round and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round in gentlemen’s sweeps. Indiana defeated the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round in six games and the New York Knicks in the second round in seven.

Are there warnings involved? Yes. The Celtics benefited from Jimmy Butler’s absence in the first round and Jarrett Allen’s absence in the second round (plus Donovan Mitchell missing Games 4 and 5). The Pacers faced a Bucks team that was without Giannis Antetokounmpo for the entire series and Damian Lillard for two games and a Knicks team that was undone by an almost uncanny number of injuries.

Boston won three of its five regular-season games against Indiana, but it’s worth noting that Indiana’s addition of Pascal Siakam in mid-January could change the equation. Siakam was on the Pacers roster in only one of those matchups, a 129-124 Celtics victory on Jan. 30.

So how will the Eastern Conference finals play out? To help answer that question, we enlisted the help of a scout, a coach and a league executive and asked them for their analysis and predictions. We granted them anonymity because their employers did not allow them to speak publicly about other franchises. Anonymity also gave them the freedom to be completely honest in their evaluations.

(Editor’s note: Expert comments have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.)

No. 1 Boston Celtics vs. No. 6 Indiana Pacers

Explorer Perspective: The addition of Siakam is huge for the Pacers, obviously. It gives them a real go-to guy. He wasn’t sure how he would fit in, but he fits in pretty well. I love the way they play. They share the ball. It all starts with Haliburton. They move it. It’s no coincidence that they are the highest scoring team, because they play team basketball and have a lot of guys who can shoot. I think your bank is better than the Boston bank. I’d take (Obi) Toppin, (TJ) McConnell, (Ben) Sheppard and (Isaiah) Jackson over (Sam) Hauser, (Payton) Pritchard and (Luke) Kornet. …

Porziņģis’ absence is going to be a factor since he will miss the first two games and I think that gives the Pacers an advantage. I mean, who would you rather have, (Myles) Turner or (Al) Horford? Right now, I think you’d rather have Turner.

The pressure is on Boston. It’s not enough for them to beat Indiana. This is like free money for Indiana. The Pacers can play more freely and showed that they could play better defense at times in the series against the Knicks. Win the seventh game on the other team’s court? Yes, the Knicks were exhausted, but still, that’s hard to do in almost any circumstance. That should give them a boost.

So I’m not ruling out the Pacers. I’m not saying they’re going to win, but I think it’s going to be a competitive series. Boston has a lot of work ahead of it. Tatum and Brown, those two guys must be at a very high level. The Celtics were the best team in the league, but they lack Porziņģis; They probably won’t be the best team in the league without Porziņģis. The home field always matters. …That’s an advantage for Boston. …

Jrue Holiday, he’s like an X factor. He’s so in the background. Sometimes you don’t even know he’s on the ground. But he is capable and he has won (a title). I think he needs to produce in this series because Indiana can score. A lot of this will revolve around pacing. The slower the better for Boston.

Pascal Siakam (left) has solidified the Pacers after arriving in a midseason trade from Toronto. (Brad Penner/USA Today)

The coach’s perspective: I think with Kristaps out, the series will probably do what Boston did against Cleveland. Indiana sneaks into one of those first two and then Boston locks in and takes care of business and is 4-1 in the series.

Indiana will have to shoot the ball like they did (Sunday). They’re not going to stop Boston. They are going to have to overcome them. And I think it’s a tough order when you have Jrue Holiday as Indiana’s best player. They will make life difficult for Tyrese and try to force him to go everywhere. You can put a size on it. Jaylen Brown can guard him. Can those other guys make shots when he sprays it and gets down?

(Myles) Turner was able to get 3 New York killed. (Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau) is very traditional, so he kept (Isaiah) Hartenstein in coverage, which allowed Turner to get loose on all those threes. Boston has made more trades in the past (so) they’ve experimented with those trades so they can easily trade Turner if he gets to that point where he’s killing them with threes. They can force you to try to post or rebound offensively. And they simply have more size to deal with Turner.

But obviously, for Boston it all starts with Tyrese. You will have to try to slow him down, keep him out of the transition and try to make his life miserable. But I also think he’s worried about (TJ) McConnell coming in and changing the pace of the game. You have to find a way to take the spark out of him and take the energy out of the game. He’s baiting them with defense, confidence, leadership and timely baskets. And he’s a pace changer. He is just an unsung hero.

Executive Perspective: Celtics in five. The Celtics are in a weird situation, where they just crushed two teams 4-1 and 4-1 in the playoffs, and people are saying, “What’s wrong with the Celtics?” And they did it without one of their best players. Yes, they rely a lot on the jump shot. But they have like six guys who can do it, and it seems like they only have one more player (than the Pacers). Even with Kristaps out, they always have one more player that Indiana won’t be able to account for.

I think Indiana will pick up the pace even more than usual and see if reaching Boston’s bench deeper than Boston wants and/or wearing down their guys who played so much, a little like they did with the Knicks, is (a possibility). If he were in Rick Carlisle’s shoes, that’s what he would be doing. But the Celtics are well rested. They have two of the top 10 players in the world, and Derrick White and Jrue Holiday are fantastic two-way players. The amount of dribble penetration Indiana gained will decrease, even without Kristaps behind them to protect the rim. I just think Boston has too much firepower. All respect for what the Pacers have done, but I think the Celtics are at five.

Browser Choice: Celtics in six
Coach’s choice: Celtics in five
Executive election: Celtics in five

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(Tyrese Haliburton and Jayson Tatum photo above: Trevor Ruszkowski/USA Today)