The Silly Pacers Handed It To The Celtics, Over And Over Again

Acting your age is considered a good thing. When someone reminds you to act your age, usually it is because you are being a chaotic toddler or a huge baby. There is a certain amount of maturity you are supposed to have acquired by a certain age, and there are behaviors that you are supposed to have shed, and even if you have not acquired that maturity or shed those behaviors, you can meet your social responsibilities by acting as if you have. Act your age!

But showing your age, confusingly, is not always a good thing. If you have shown your age, often this means that you revealed some blind spot or vulnerability or frailty particular to a certain stage of life. A boomer whose only handy reference point for some current event or item of discourse is something that happened in 1973 has shown their age; a washed-up Gen-X dad whose back breaks down after playing hoops for 10 minutes with his kids has shown his age; a sweet zoomer barista who pulls me out of a doom-scrolling fog by daring in conversation with a co-worker to compare the songwriting of Taylor Swift to that of Joni Mitchell has shown her age. I don’t make the rules! I simply mutter, “Show your age, much?” and then go smugly about my business, secure in the absolute correctness of my opinions.

In the context of a basketball game, generally you want to be the side doing the age-acting, and you want your opponents to be the ones doing the age-showing. The Indiana Pacers are younger than the Boston Celtics, which ought to confer advantages in quickness and athletic stamina. Act your age, young Pacers! For most of Tuesday night’s Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Pacers managed it: They were plucky and hyperkinetic, they inbounded the ball quickly and pushed up the floor and raced into their sets, and they stayed in attack mode even when they fell behind early, forcing the home team to work at the task of slowing the game down. Different Pacers guards embody different expressions of the team’s youthful energy: Andrew Nembhard darts and skitters; Aaron Nesmith charges and soars; Tyrese Haliburton lopes and dances. They and other Pacers took turns Tuesday night dragging Boston’s oldest rotation guy, Al Horford, out into space, and then forcing him to show his age. The Celtics never really discovered a counter; they just kept trying to gain a handle on the game’s pace, trying to make everyone stand still for a few seconds so that they could assert some measure of control, like a parent trying to do a head count at a toddler’s birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese.

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You could see the effect of this in the second half, just in the slumping body language and the furrowed, half-stunned disbelief on the faces of the Celtics, as the irrepressible Pacers hung in there and then drew even and then pulled ahead, without ever seeming to suffer even a moment’s lapse in energy. Boston worked a good, crisp possession out of a timeout to generate an open wing three-pointer for Derrick White to draw within a point, then followed it up with a defensive stop. It’s not even clear the Pacers noticed. They got a stop of their own, then pushed ahead into semi-transition; Pascal Siakam raced right at Horford and drove him into the lane; Boston’s defense collapsed; Siakam kicked it out to Nesmith, who drove immediately into White, rode him into the paint, and scored through contact. White flopped against the basket stanchion and raised his palms in an “I give up” gesture familiar to anyone who’s been boat-raced at Mario Kart by a pre-teen nephew and decided internally to never play the game again. The quiet Boston crowd didn’t have that gushing off-gassing of comprehending disappointment; the vibe among the Celtics and their fans was surreal pursed-lip disorientation.

The Pacers had their asses; home-court advantage was in their hands. All they had to do was act normal for one minute. Take possession of the ball, use the shot clock, allow the Celtics to foul, make a single free throw. Normal business operations for a team of adults. Act your age, Pacers; do not, under any circumstances, show it.

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“We showed our age a little bit tonight,” reflected Myles Turner, after the game’s conclusion. Oh no! “Being a youthful team and being in this high-stakes of a game, those uncharacteristic mistakes just made their way out.” They sure did.

Haliburton more or less sprinted the ball directly out of bounds with 28 seconds left and the Pacers up three, possibly the least forced turnover he will ever commit. This was Indiana’s 18th turnover of the game, but it should’ve been survivable: The Celtics missed two shots on the ensuing possession and then had to use a take foul with just 10 seconds on the clock. Here was another opportunity for the Pacers to win a road playoff game by completing a basic basketball action. Simply pass the ball into the hands of a teammate. The Celtics needed an incredibly improbable sequence of things to go their way to convert this situation into even a long-shot opportunity to close the margin. Per the Elias Sports Bureau, no team since at least 1998 had won a playoff game after being down at least three points inside of the final 10 seconds, with their opponent inbounding the ball.

Instead, the Pacers sort of jogged confusedly through a deeply uninspired inbounds play, and Nembhard, perhaps not appreciating the value of the timeout the Pacers still had in hand, tossed a regrettable pass to a blanketed Siakam, who then compounded the error by making a second, pointless stab at the loose ball, after he’d already put his foot out of bounds. Boston regained possession; Joe Mazzulla drew up a solid play for a corner three-pointer, and Jaylen Brown buried it. There’s an argument to be made that Siakam had the time and a duty to foul Brown, or to at least risk a foul in order to more seriously contest the attempt, but the point is that Boston should not have had that chance.

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The mistakes continued in overtime, including another costly instance of Haliburton dribbling the ball off of his own foot. “I don’t know, there was like three different occasions where I dribbled the ball off my foot today,” Haliburton said later. “I don’t know what happened. It’s frustrating because that’s not something that happens normally for me and nobody forced it.” Boston, finally able to exert some control over the proceedings, calmly executed their plays over the game’s final handful of possessions, converted points on each of their last five trips down the floor, and escaped with a victory the Pacers had all but giftwrapped.

The Pacers had a chance to condemn the favored Celtics to the torments of hell with a Game 1 shocker, and now they are the ones left to sift for moral victories. “I think it’s discouraging just because of the plays that happened down the stretch,” said Haliburton, per The Athletic. “We feel like we were in position to win the game and just didn’t win the game. But what I will say is encouraging is we have been trash in Game 1s. First series and second series. And today we played great for about 47 minutes, just didn’t sustain it for 48. So, we’ll go back, watch the film. There will be good, there will be bad. And we’ll learn from it.” Foolish child! It is a mistake of youthful inexperience to believe that a missed opportunity will circle the block and come back around a second time.

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