The Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers are two teams that are widely believed to be the biggest threats to the Miami Heat’s continued dominance in the 2012-2013 NBA season. In many ways these two teams are mirror images of one another. Both teams pride themselves on physicality as the above image indicates and both prefer playing at a slower pace, ESPN stat guru John Hollinger’s pace factor had Indiana ranked 19th and Boston ranked 22nd in 2011-2012. The Celtics and Pacers are strong defensive teams with both ranking in the top 10 in defensive efficiency, the Celtics finished second and the Pacers tenth in this metric.
The Pacers and Celtics split the season series with each team winning twice. None of the games were particularly close either as the winning team won each contest by at least seven points. Going into the 2012-2013 season however both teams have some new faces, I will examine the matchups within this series and what the potential outcome would be if the Celtics and Pacers were to meet in the playoffs.
Rajon Rondo vs. George Hill/D.J. Augustin/Sundiata Gaines
On talent, this isn’t a close matchup by any means. Not to slight George Hill and D.J. Augustin because they are quality players in their own right but Rajon Rondo is clearly an elite point guard in the NBA with one glaring flaw, his broke jumper. To his credit, his jumper has improved greatly since he first came into the league but this is the only thing stopping him from reaching even greater heights as a player. Rondo’s epic Game 2 in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat where he shot 16-24 from the field, scoring 44 points, dishing out ten assists and grabbing eight rebounds was an all-time great performance and offered a glimpse of what Rajon could be with a consistent jump shot.
George Hill isn’t a traditional point guard but he is a solid athlete who at 26 is young enough to improve his floor general skills. He doesn’t turn the ball over often and is solid defensively, using his length to his advantage being among the leaders at the point guard position in rebounds and blocked shots. Hill is also a solid shooter, hitting 36.7 percent from downtown last season.
Jason Terry will most likely be the back-up point guard when Rajon Rondo needs a rest but I will discuss him more in the shooting guard comparisons as his style of play is more similar to a two-guard. For the Pacers, D.J. Augustin was signed to replace Darren Collison as the backup to George Hill. Augustin is a great distributor who averaged 8.7 assists per 40 minutes playing for the comically bad Charlotte Bobcats last season. He struggles defensively and has horrendous shooting percentages, barely shooting 40 percent from the field for his career but should help the Pacers as he is more of a natural passer than Collison was. The Augustin addition does not even come close to swinging the point guard matchup in favor of the Pacers however.
Sundiata Gaines likely won’t play much for the Indiana Pacers but because of his defensive abilities is decent as a garbage time option, he has no bearing at all in this matchup.
Avery Bradley/Courtney Lee/Jason Terry vs. Paul George/Gerald Green
This is one of many intriguing matchups between these two squads. Avery Bradley really came into his own before being shelved during the playoffs as a result of a shoulder injury. Bradley is a ball-hawking guard who once he was inserted into the Celtics starting lineup helped turn around a team that had been playing underwhelming basketball for the first half of the 2011-12 season. Dwyane Wade knows firsthand what Bradley is capable of defensively. Avery also proved his worth offensively, hitting 40.7 percent of his three point attempts and close to 50 percent from the field.
Paul George is another young stud at the 2-guard position that I am very high on. If the Pacers want to further ascend among the league’s elite teams, George’s progression is crucial. At a listed 6’8” and he may even be taller than that, it will be borderline impossible for the shorter Celtics guards to shoot over the top of him. Paul George has superstar potential and should continue to build on that in 2012-13. Indiana has the edge as far as starters are concerned.
While Indiana may have the advantage as far as starting shooting guards, things even out when comparing the bench play of the two teams. Courtney Lee projects to be the starting two-guard on opening night if Avery Bradley is not recovered from shoulder surgery. Lee is a solid defensive player who fits the Celtics ideology well. He is a quality outside shooter who doesn’t try to do too much. Jason Terry is a combo guard who represents an upgrade from Ray Allen, the Jet will be a major help to Boston because of his ability to create his own shot. He is one of the premier sixth men in the NBA and will provide the Celtics with a spark off the bench.
Gerald Green is quite the comeback story, he was for a long time viewed as a bust coming out of high school but experienced a resurrection of sorts last season playing for the then New Jersey Nets. After spending three years playing in Europe and the D-League, Green in 31 games scored 12.9 points a game for the Nets and displayed a newfound ability to shoot the three, hitting 39.1 percent from deep. Gerald Green has elite athleticism being a former NBA Slam Dunk Contest champion and should provide the Pacers with some scoring punch.
Paul Pierce/Jeff Green vs. Danny Granger/Sam Young/Lance Stephenson
The best scorers from both the Celtics and Pacers happen to play the swingman position. Paul Pierce is a legend in Beantown who hasn’t slowed down much despite his age, he will turn 35 in October. “The Truth” is coming off a highly productive 2012 campaign, averaging 19.4 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.5 assists and adding a tenth All-Star selection to an already storied career. Pierce was never dependent on his athleticism even in his younger days and uses his crafty, old man at the YMCA type game to score and outsmart opponents. I expect Pierce’s load to lighten in 2013 now that Jeff Green will be back.
Danny Granger is an interesting player. Though he is in his prime years at the age of 29, his scoring averages have taken a dip for the past four seasons. Some of that can be attributed to playing with an improved supporting cast but his shooting percentages have gotten gradually worse as well which is worrisome. He shot a career low 41.6 percent from the field last season and while he is a very good free throw shooter has not gotten to the stripe like he once did. He is still a very solid player however and is a potent outside shooter, shooting 38.1 percent from deep and is not scared of anyone as Lebron James can surely attest to.
Jeff Green is thankfully fully recovered from an aortic aneurysm that forced him to sit out all of last season. As a follower of Green since his Georgetown days, I have a vested rooting interest in the former 2007 Big East Player of the Year and always felt he could be a very productive player in the right system. In Oklahoma City he was miscast as a power forward and though he can play the position in spurts, the small forward position suits his skill set much better. Green played very solid defense in his limited time as a Celtic and has a well-rounded game. Celtics brass seems to think highly of Jeff as well, signing him to a four-year, 36 million dollar extension this summer. Though this is a risky deal considering Green hasn’t played in a game in 16 months, he is heading into his prime years and at the age of 26 hopefully his best basketball is ahead of him.
Indiana has a few options at the swingman position as well, in addition to the aforementioned Gerald Green, Sam Young and Lance Stephenson should get some burn off the bench. Sam Young might be the oldest looking 27 year old I have ever seen but he provides tough defense and the ability to hit the mid-range jumper. Lance Stephenson is a grade-A talent and grade-F headcase. He was a highly touted high school player out of New York City and his career highlight so far in the NBA was a distasteful choking gesture to Lebron James during Game three of their hotly contested playoff series with the eventual champion Miami Heat. Needless to say Stephenson should get his act together as a player before making such bold actions and more importantly before he is out of a job.
Boston has the clear edge in both the starting lineup as well as the bench at the small forward position.
Brandon Bass/Jared Sullinger/Chris Wilcox vs. David West/Tyler Hansbrough/Jeff Pendergraph
Brandon Bass proved to be a valuable contributor to the Boston Celtics last season, displaying his top-notch midrange game and averaging his highest rebound total per game last season bringing down 6.2 boards a contest. I like Bass, he is a good team guy who is far more low-maintenance than the man he replaced, Glen “Big Baby” Davis and is a hard worker who has greatly improved on defense since being acquired by the Celtics.
David West in his first year as a Pacer established himself as a locker room leader. While his personal stats took a dip last season, this was also the product of being on a team with more scoring options. West is a quality midrange shooter who is also skilled around the basket, he shot a solid 48.7 percent from the field last season and provided good team defense playing alongside Roy Hibbert. West also only played 29.2 minutes a game in 2011-12 recovering from a torn ACL and could likely see a boost in his personal stats with more playing time.
Jared Sullinger is a floor-bound rookie who could prove to be a steal of the 2012 NBA Draft being picked 21st by the Celtics. He has had back issues and is not always in the best shape but is a highly skilled big man who could have been picked much higher had he left after his freshman season at Ohio State. Sully is a very good rebounder and should help the Celtics in this regard, as their rebounding turned out to be their undoing in the playoffs.
Chris Wilcox much like Jeff Green is recovering from a heart ailment which prematurely ended his 2011-12 season. He is still a solid athlete who can excel playing in pick and roll situations but is fairly limited otherwise.
Tyler Hansbrough aka Psycho T is a strong, hustling type of player who takes way too many ill-advised shots. Hansbrough has never met a shot he did not like, even if there is a high probability of it being blocked or missed completely. That being said he can be effective in small doses.
I give the Pacers the nod because of the highly skilled repertoire and leadership of David West.
Kevin Garnett/Jason Collins/Fab Melo vs. Roy Hibbert/Ian Mahinmi/Miles Plumlee
To me this is the most pivotal matchup between the two squads. Garnett and Hibbert are both all-star caliber players at the center position. While one is a first-ballot Hall of Famer in KG, Hibbert is an emerging 25-year old big man who has shown steady progress in each of his four NBA seasons.
Garnett experienced a rebirth of sorts last season, in the beginning of the year KG looked washed up at times and many were wondering when he would hang it up and retire. Then Doc Rivers moved him to the center position and KG played some of his most inspired basketball to finish off a very solid 2011-12 campaign. Kevin Garnett is still one of the best defensive players in the league and is considered by many to be the heart of the Celtics along with Paul Pierce. As long as he is not slowed by injuries, I expect KG to play very well in 2012-13 after a very impressive post-season.
Hibbert is a blossoming big man who was rewarded with his stellar play with a four-year, 58 million dollar contract. He is unblockable when he gets position down low being 7’2” and has an impressive array of post moves so he may likely expand on his 2011-2012 season. Stamina is the only major concern with Hibbert as he only averaged 29.8 minutes a night.
Though Ian Mahinmi should be helpful as a backup in Indiana, I am not very excited about either team’s bench options at the five. For the Celtics, Jason Collins is useless unless he is defending Dwight Howard or Andrew Bynum and Fab Melo is a project who is years away from being ready. Miles Plumlee is an athletic big guy with very limited skills and he was not particularly productive in college despite playing for Coach K at Duke.
Despite KG having the greater resume, with Hibbert’s year to year improvement I believe the matchup at the five is fairly even between the Celtics and Pacers.
Doc Rivers vs. Frank Vogel
Doc Rivers as we all know is a master motivator who can bring out the best in his players even when no one else believes in them. I have an immense respect for Doc’s basketball acumen and though he has a raspy, smokers voice that is quite agitating at times, he gets through to his players like few others can. Rivers knows the championship window is closing on his aging core but will have his team ready to play when it matters.
While Doc Rivers is obviously the more storied coach, Frank Vogel isn’t too shabby himself. He is very young for a coach at the age of 39 but his guys have taken very well to his no-nonsense style of coaching. Though I believe he got away from what was working for the Pacers against the Heat too soon last year, he is a emerging sideline general who should have the Pacers near the top of the Eastern Conference for years to come.
Because of track record, I have to give Doc the nod however.
Consistent with the mantras of both squads, I fully expect the Pacers and Celtics to play a intense, highly physical playoff series should the two teams meet. With the Miami Heat clearly being the class of the Eastern Conference, unless something unforeseen takes place Boston and Indiana would likely meet in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
I expect Kevin Garnett and Roy Hibbert to have great battles down low on the block, Paul Pierce and Danny Granger to go at each other with frequent smack talk and a few skirmishes between these respective teams given their style of play. Rajon Rondo should perform at a high level and Paul George could possibly swing this series in Indiana’s favor if he continues his upward trajectory.
Ultimately I believe the discrepancy between point guard talent on these teams and Doc Rivers’ coaching will prove to be the difference in this hard-fought series. While Indiana is a young team that should be a factor for a long time in the Eastern Conference, the Boston Celtics realize that their time is now and have too much firepower for the Pacers.
Prediction: Celtics in 6