The Boston Celtics have swept the Indiana Pacers and are now all but guaranteed to face the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in the second round. Let the speculation begin about whether this sweep means the Celtics, who were something of a bumbling mess most of the regular season, have flipped the proverbial switch. There's no doubt they looked good vs. fifth-seeded Indiana. Broadly, their energy is up. Their general rhythm, even against an Indiana team that is to be commended for not making anything easy, is clearly in a good place. The Celtics look and feel ... positive.
They were also losing three of the four games at halftime to an Indiana team playing without Victor Oladipo and at a significant talent deficit. This was about as competitive as a sweep can be. On the one hand, you liked Boston's grit and ability to generate space and finish close games. This didn't feel like the Celtics playing down to a lesser-talented team. This felt like Indiana playing up. On the other hand, the Pacers, for all their grit, aren't even close to the Bucks.
But they're not the Pistons either.
While fourth-seeded Boston did get tested and responded, Milwaukee is going to go into this second-round matchup having had a much easier time against a much worse Detroit team. The Bucks, as it pertains to some of their potential playoff pitfalls, have questions of their own and weren't in a position to really answer any of them against a vastly inferior team, but most league people I've talked to still believe them to be the favorite to come out of the East. That was a distinction that belonged, pretty firmly, to the Celtics before the season started, and the reasons for that were definitely on display against the Pacers.
Top-end talent. Incredible depth. Versatility on both ends. A flat-out big-stage stud in Kyrie Irving, who was sensational vs. Indiana, expertly walking that fine line between hunting his own offense and getting everyone else involved. When he does that, and the role players respond to the involvement, they can beat anyone. Look at Game 4: Terry Rozier, Marcus Morris and Gordon Hayward combined for 49 points off the bench on 69 percent shooting. That's not just depth in terms of usable bodies. That's big-time production depth. Few teams can match that.
Let's talk about Hayward, specifically, for a second. He had 20 points on 7-of-9 shooting in Game 4. And it wasn't just the points -- it was the way he got them, cashing all three of his 3-pointers, and probably more importantly, attacking the rim and off the bounce like his old self. Check the decisive shot fake, drive and finish here:
Here he recovers a loose ball in the backcourt and streaks straight to the rim:
They called an offensive foul on Aron Baynes for clearing out the lane on this play, but still, Hayward attacking like this at full speed with no hesitation exploding to the rim is awesome to see. Here he does it again late in the fourth quarter, recognizing a mismatch with Myles Turner and sprinting the ball back out to the perimeter to set up a one-on-one downhill drive:
Now that he's attacking and finishing like this, it puts the defenders on their heels and opens up this:
Earlier this season, a person close to the Celtics told CBS Sports that Hayward, in his eyes, was very dependent throughout the season on how Boston was playing, which is to say when the Celtics had a good rhythm going as a team, Hayward could fall into it and look pretty good. But he wasn't yet at a point physically, or perhaps even mentally, to break through on his own when the Celtics were in a collective funk, which was the case for large stretches this season.
The Celtics were in a pretty good rhythm for most of this Indiana series, but the Hayward we saw in Game 4 looked independent of outside influence. Hayward was making his own rhythm, his own plays, his own mark. This is the Gordon Hayward the Celtics were happy to sign to a four-year, $128 million max deal -- the guy who can be a legitimate second star alongside Kyrie, playing downhill in isolation, curling off screens and finishing in the short mid-range, taking contact in the lane and finishing from different angles, dragging defenders with him on pick and rolls and opening up shots for popping bigs.
When you can put the ball in Hayward's hands, for crucial stretches, with full confidence that he is going to make plays, with Irving, Tatum and Horford around him, defenses are in trouble. They're in even more trouble when Tatum isn't settling for contested mid-rangers and is instead attacking the basket, which he did pretty consistently against Indiana, and when Irving and Horford are this locked into their two-man game. Throw in Jaylen Brown and Rozier playing terrific on defense and adding a combined 17 points a game against Indiana, and a defensive unit that looks stifling again (though you clearly have to factor in the Pacers' lack of offensive options), and then remember that Marcus Smart could still be coming back, and yeah, this Celtics team looks to be doing that peaking-at-the-right-time thing.
"You'll see a different team in the playoffs," a league scout told CBS Sports about the Celtics in early April. "I think they're just kind of waiting to get there now."
They're here now, and so far, they look a lot like the team everyone thought they could be.