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    Thursday, June 13, 2024

    Pacers put unbeaten home playoff record on the line vs. Celtics road success in Game 3

    Indiana Pacers forward Pascal Siakam, right, is defended by Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown during Game 2 of the NBA Eastern Conference finals Thursday in Boston. (Michael Dwyer/AP Photo)

    Indianapolis — The Indiana Pacers can read the numbers.

    They're down 2-0 in another best-of-seven series and are heading home, where they are a perfect 6-0 during this season's playoff run. They need a win in Saturday's pivotal Game 3 to get back in this series, just as they did last week against New York. And, yes, they're facing the top-seeded Boston Celtics, who are a perfect 4-0 on the road this postseason.

    The bleakest part of this equation for Indiana is the possibility of losing All-NBA guard Tyrese Haliburton. The league's assist champ departed in the third quarter of a Game 2 loss after re-injuring his left hamstring. He did not return.

    Yet the Pacers, largely composed of playoff newcomers or newcomers to high-profile postseason roles, has not blinked when others wrote them off — and they do not intend to start now with so much at stake this weekend.

    “Our fans give us so much energy,” said Indiana forward Pascal Siakam, a midseason acquisition from Toronto where he won an NBA title. “Obviously, for me, I'm experiencing for the first time the energy and they're so passionate about our team. We can't wait to go out there Saturday and just the energy they're going to bring to support us.”

    Haliburton's status could change everything. The Pacers listed him as questionable on Friday's injury report. While the injury could dampen the mood in Indy, it won't change the fact this will be the city's biggest weekend in years.

    The 108th running of the Indianapolis 500, the world’s largest single-day sporting event expected to draw a crowd of nearly 300,000, is sandwiched in between Saturday's Game 3 and Monday's Game 4.

    Should rain force the race's first postponement since 1997, it would be rescheduled for Monday — creating a wildly rare Pacers and racers Memorial Day doubleheader.

    The conflagration of a show built for speed, like the Pacers, isn't lost on these guys, most of whom are sharing Indy's May stage with the IndyCar stars and the Colts, who have been holding offseason workouts in town. The only missing feature is Caitlin Clark, who is on a West Coast trip with the WNBA’s Indiana Fever.

    But make no mistake: The Pacers are eager to shake things up every bit as much as the Greatest Spectacle in Racing — with or without Haliburton.

    “Like I said, losing sucks,” Pacers guard Andrew Nembhard said after playing four games in seven days in three cities. “It was a long road trip. I think it will be nice for all of us to get back in our own beds. We’re excited to play in front of our fans, and it’s going to be a big weekend with the race in there. So we can’t wait to get back on our home court.”

    The Celtics, meanwhile, come to town with a different kind of advantage.

    They won twice at Miami in the first round before returning home to close out the Heat in five games. Then in the conference semifinals, they won twice at Cleveland before eliminating the Cavaliers in five games. If they win the next two, Boston will be back in the NBA Finals for the second time in three years, courtesy of a conference finals sweep.

    Clearly, the math works — even if Boston doesn't expect things to go quite so smoothly.

    “They were down 2-0 in a series that went to Game 7. They do a great job defending their home court,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said. “So it’s going to take a lot more to get the job done. I know they’re going to respond, so it’s up to us to do the same.”

    Boston has other issues to sort out, too.

    While Jaylen Brown matched his playoff career high with 40 points in Game 2 after being left off the All-NBA teams, Jayson Tatum struggled to get going early.

    The Celtics also lost backup center Luke Kornet with a sprained left wrist Thursday. He's listed as doubtful and center Kristaps Porzingis, who has not played since April 29, has been ruled out again Saturday.

    Without Kornet and Porzingis, Mazzulla went with a smaller lineup that included former Pacers forward Oshae Brissett. The stats showed Mazzulla's move slowed down Haliburton and the league’s highest-octane offense.

    “The individual defense was good,” Mazzulla said. “We were able to get in line with them going out to shooters and, we talked about this, a little bit better communication. I thought we had a little bit more patience (defensively).”

    Could it work again in Indianapolis?

    Part of the answer will be determined by Haliburton's status. The rest may be determined by what kind of game-day strategy they employ to overcome a hobbled Haliburton.

    “When your franchise guy goes down, obviously it’s tough,” Pacers guard T.J. McConnell said. “But that’s a time for everyone to step up and take a bigger role. We’ve done a good job of that when he has been out. Obviously, it hurts when he goes down, but it's one of those things where it’s the next man up mentality and, obviously, we’ll see.”

    Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum reacts during the second half of Game 2 of the NBA Eastern Conference finals against the Indiana Pacers on Thursday. (Steven Senne/AP Photo)
    Boston Celtics forward Oshae Brissett celebrates after dunking against the Indiana Pacers during Game 2 Thursday in Boston. (Steven Senne/AP Photo)

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