The Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers vie for the distinction of being the first semifinalist in the NBA in-season tournament when they duel Monday night in Indianapolis.
Indiana earned the home court based on being one of two Eastern Conference teams to make a perfect run through its tournament group play, having dispatched of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Philadelphia 76ers, Atlanta Hawks and Detroit Pistons.
Boston also won its group, but needed a point-differential tie-breaker to get the nod over the Orlando Magic and Brooklyn Nets after all three had a loss. The Celtics, in fact, were blown out 113-96 at Orlando, requiring them to pour it on the Chicago Bulls in a 124-97 finale that tipped the point-differential scales.
The Pacers and Celtics have met once this season, and it wasn’t close. On Nov. 1, Boston got 30 points from Jayson Tatum in just 27 minutes in a 155-104 home romp when Indiana was missing star Tyrese Haliburton.
Boston enters the game in better form than Indiana. The Celtics have risen to the top of the East regular-season standings with five-, six- and three-game winning streaks, the latter compiled in their last three games against the Hawks, Bulls and 76ers.
Boston has continued to win without Kristaps Porzingis, who remains out with a calf injury. The Celtics made up for the absence with seven players reaching double-figure points in Friday’s 125-119 home win over the 76ers. The group included starters Tatum (21), Derrick White (21), Jaylen Brown (20) and Al Horford (20).
The key to the sustained short-handed success, Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said, is Horford, who in his last two games as a starter has totaled 36 points, 15 rebounds, nine assists and five blocks, shooting 13 for 17 from the floor.
“He’s reinvented his game with his offensive rebounding,” Mazzulla said, “and helped better our defensive identity, being creative and doing some different stuff. He headlines that.”
The Celtics might be seeing the Pacers again without Haliburton, who sat out Saturday’s 144-129 win at Miami with a sore knee. Two nights earlier, the Indiana star burned the Heat on the same court for 44 points in a 142-132 loss.
With or without Haliburton, Pacers coach Rick Carlisle recognizes the biggest advantage his team will have over the Celtics is home court.
“I just want to make every appeal I can to our fans that we need the loudest building possible,” Carlisle said. “To show you that no good deed goes unpunished, we draw the team with the best record in basketball. But we do get to play them at home. So that’s something important. We need our building to be as loud and raucous as it possibly can and we need to throw a game out there that’s exceptional.”
The Pacers’ best basketball has come at the offensive end. Indiana leads the NBA in scoring at 128.8 points per game entering Sunday, having topped 120 points in all but four of its 18 contests.
The Celtics rank fourth in the NBA in defense with a 107.4 per-game allowance entering Sunday.
The winner will advance to the tournament semifinals Thursday in Las Vegas. The final is scheduled for Saturday.