Celtics come up clutch again; into Finals after sweeping Pacers

INDIANAPOLIS — When Boston Celtics legend Cedric Maxwell read off Jaylen Brown‘s name as the winner of the Larry Bird Trophy as Eastern Conference finals MVP, no one seemed more surprised than Brown himself.

“I wasn’t expecting it at all,” Brown said, with the trophy sitting next to him at the podium after Boston’s series-ending 105-102 Game 4 victory over the Indiana Pacers on Monday night, before adding with a broad smile, “I don’t never win s—.”

But it was Brown who made a pair of plays in the final 65 seconds — first blocking Andrew Nembhard‘s drive to the rim, then getting into the lane and kicking the ball out to Derrick White for what became the winning 3-pointer with 41 seconds to go, a shot that put Boston ahead for the first time since the opening possession of the second half — that allowed the Celtics to escape from this series with a sweep and return to the NBA Finals for a second time in three years.

“I’m just happy that we won,” Brown continued. “And give credit to Indiana, they played us tough. I know people think that Indiana wasn’t a good team or whatever the case may be, but I thought they were as tough as anybody we played all season. They were physical, they were fast, they put a lot of pressure on us. So shout out to them, and respect to them.”

The Pacers, playing for a second straight game without All-NBA guard Tyrese Haliburton, certainly gave Boston all it could handle. After leading the Celtics by as many as 18 points in the second half of Saturday night’s Game 3 before Boston stormed back and won in the dying seconds, Indiana took the lead in the second half Monday on a Myles Turner 3-pointer to open the third quarter and never trailed again until White’s corner 3 fell.

At that point, Nembhard — who was brilliant for a second straight game as Haliburton’s replacement, going for 24 points and 10 assists in 38 minutes — missed a game-tying triple of his own. Then, after Jayson Tatum — who finished with 26 points, 13 rebounds and 8 assists — missed a game-sealing 3 at the other end, Jrue Holiday gobbled up the offensive rebound for Boston, allowing time to expire and the Celtics to celebrate.

“It’s special,” Tatum said of advancing to the NBA Finals for the second time in his career. “Even though we’ve been there before, most of us have, you don’t take it for granted. We were excited.

“It was a hell of a team we just played, they made us earn every single game and we’re extremely grateful to move on to the Finals.”

It was a fitting victory for the Celtics, one that saw several players take their turns playing a part. Brown finished with 29 points and 6 rebounds, with his second half scoring barrage helping keep Boston in the game and eventually pull out the win. Tatum had a bucket and grabbed three defensive rebounds late after picking up his fifth foul midway through the fourth.

And then there was White who, despite going 1-for-8 to begin the game from 3, stepped up and hit the game’s biggest shot, to go along with five steals and three blocks.

“Just space and just trust that JB is going to make the right play like he has this entire year,” said White when asked what he was thinking as Brown got into the lane. “I got a good look and just wanted to stay in the shot and knock it down.

“Obviously, I missed a few in a row but they were starting to feel a little better, so just stayed confident and was able to make one.”

For the Pacers, it was yet another game that will leave them with regrets over how this series played out. After taking a 9-point lead on a Nembhard and-1 layup in the fourth quarter, T.J. McConnell missed a completely uncovered layup with 8:35 remaining that would’ve pushed Indiana’s lead to double digits.

Instead, Boston closed the game with a 20-8 run to complete the sweep, marking the third time in four games Boston pulled out a game it had trailed in the fourth quarter.

“Give them credit for the stuff they pulled off at the end of the last two games,” Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said. “They simply made more plays. They blocked shots. They got offensive rebounds. They made key shots.”

As a result, the Celtics — who had advanced to five Eastern Conference finals in seven years before this one, reaching the NBA Finals just once — are now back in the league’s championship round yet again. And that is in part because of the growth of Brown and Tatum, their two stars who have seen this team go through so many rough moments in the playoffs over the past several years, only to put together a 12-2 run through the East that will have this team as fresh and ready for the Finals as it possibly could be.

“We feel like we’re a different team than we were last year and the year before that,” Brown said. “I know everybody wants to continue to kind of pigeonhole us to what was happening in the past but we’ve had a different team every single year, different coaches, we’ve had like three coaches in the last five years. And still people want to make it seem like it’s the same, it’s the same, it’s the same.

“Time has gone by, experience has been gained and I think we are ready to put our best foot forward.”

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