NBA playoffs: Celtics erase 18-point deficit, take 3-0 lead to break hearts of shorthanded Pacers

The task was more difficult than expected, but the Boston Celtics came out of Game 4 with a 3-0 lead over the shorthanded Indiana Pacers on Saturday night.

Led by Jayson Tatum’s 36 points, the East’s top seed erased an 18-point deficit and broke Pacers’ hearts with a 114-111 victory in the Eastern Conference finals. Game 4 is scheduled for Monday at 8 p.m. ET.

No team in NBA history has ever trailed 3-0 in a series.

The Pacers entered the game without Tyrese Halliburton, who left Game 3 with a hamstring injury and was ruled out just hours before Game 4. He was replaced by Andrew Nembhardt, who had a Halliburton-esque night with 12 of 32 points. -21 shooting and nine assists.

Combined with 20-plus points from Pascal Siakam, Myles Turner and bench hero DJ McConnell, it looked like that would be enough.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 25: Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics celebrates a three-point basket against the Indiana Pacers during the first quarter of the Eastern Conference Finals at Cainbridge Fieldhouse on May 25, 2024 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  Note to User: By downloading or using this photo, the user expressly acknowledges and agrees that the user agrees to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Stacey Revere/Getty Images)

The Celtics have a 3-0 lead in the series, and the loss was painful for the Pacers. (Photo by Stacey Revere/Getty Images)

Instead, the Celtics steadily pulled away throughout the second half. Tatum took over, hitting 12-of-23 shots with 10 rebounds, eight assists, two blocks and zero turnovers. They led by as many as five points early in the fourth quarter, then cut it to two shortly after with three points and 1:12 remaining.

Jrue Holiday put them on top with an and-1 in the final minute, finished off by Siakam’s contact.

Holiday, questionable for the game due to an illness, stripped Nembhard for a steal with four seconds left to put the Pacers back in the hunt for what could have been a game-winning possession.

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Cainbridge Fieldhouse, ecstatic for most of the game, was quiet as officials reviewed whether a clear route foul was committed against Holiday after the steal. The rebound went the Pacers’ way, but Holiday got two more free throws, which he made with 1.7 seconds left to put the Celtics up by three points.

That gave Indiana one last chance to tie the game after leading by double digits for two more quarters. It chose to run what looked like a football play, which saw Nembhard succeed in running the ball around the perimeter, but His buzzer-beating attempt went wide to end the game.

Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle was furious that the Celtics celebrated because of some contact on Nembard, but didn’t blow the whistle.

As the Pacers mourn the loss of Halliburton, the Celtics have gone the entire series without starting center Kristaps Porcisicz. The reason they didn’t complain was because of Al Horford’s play.

The 37-year-old veteran scored 23 points on 7-of-12 3-point shooting and made a difference in the starting lineup again. That number is a career high in Horford’s 17th NBA season and is good enough to make him the oldest player in NBA history to make seven 3-pointers in a playoff game.

Porziņģis is reportedly moving toward an early return in Game 4, but Horford gives the Celtics the luxury of not needing him and could give the Latvian plenty of rest before the NBA Finals.

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Nembhard came close to a signature playoff moment on that last 3-point attempt. What happened Saturday still stands as the most impressive night of his basketball career.

Nembhard’s 32 points aren’t just a playoff or season high. Those were his most points in a game in his NBA and college career. He did it against the Celtics, who boasted one of the NBA’s best defensive backcourts with Holiday and Derrick White and Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

Nembhardt was a second-round pick in 2022, played quickly in the Pacers’ rotation and stayed there as the Pacers climbed the Eastern Conference standings this season. With Halliburton out, Indiana moved Ben Shepard into the starting lineup and handed Nembhardt the primary ball-handling responsibilities.

Game 3 showed that Nembhardt’s potential is still higher than anyone expected, though that’s not much consolation as the Pacers face the end of their season.

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