Pacers hope to beat odds and extend East Finals against Celtics

Indiana Pacers guard T.J. McConnell (9) celebrates after making a three-point basket during the second half of Game 3 of the NBA Eastern Conference basketball finals against the Boston Celtics, Saturday, May 25, 2024, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

INDIANAPOLIS — Coach Rick Carlisle expects the Indiana Pacers to punch back Monday night.

Yes, he realizes no NBA team has ever rallied from a 3-0 deficit to win a best-of-seven series, and, of course, his players understand a Game 4 victory only assures them of one thing — another trip to Boston for another elimination game.

And yet, Carlisle believes his players are ready to continue the fight.

“We’re going to come at these guys harder on Monday,” Carlisle said Saturday after losing their first home playoff game this season. “Our fans need to come out and they need to get louder than they’ve ever been, and we’ve got to extend this series. We’ve got to get back on that plane for Game 5.”

Clearly, that will be easier said than done.

The Pacers have blown winnable chances in the final minute of Games 1 and 3 and hung close in Game 2 — until a left hamstring injury sent All-NBA guard Tyrese Haliburton to the locker room in the third quarter.

He didn’t return that night and sat out Saturday, against his wishes. Carlisle did not say Sunday whether Haliburton might play in Game 4. Regardless, the Pacers season comes down to this — win or go home.

“There’s no guy in this locker room that’s packed it in,” Pacers guard T.J. McConnell said. “We’re going to have to get one here and extend the series, then go back to Boston and try to make things difficult. But there’s no guy in this locker room that’s going to quit.”

The Celtics know how this works, too.

They’ve appeared in six of the last eight Eastern Conference finals and they’re now just a win away from advancing to the NBA Finals for the second time during that span. Five wins would give the franchise its first championship since 2008.

But a year ago, Boston found itself facing an even trickier proposition after losing the first two games at home before getting blown out at Miami. The Celtics responded to the 3-0 deficit by winning the next three before enduring a rare Game 7 loss at home.

It’s a lesson that could serve them well Monday night when they’ll try to improve to 6-0 on the road in these playoffs.

“It’s huge,” All-NBA forward Jayson Tatum said after Boston’s sixth straight playoff win. “We’re in a great position right now, one win away from the finals. But we know we can’t relax for one second. A year ago, we were down 0-3 and figured out a way to force it to seven, so we’re not looking past Monday.”

Tatum has been the Celtics catalyst in this series, scoring a playoff career-high 36 points twice in the first three games.

The big lead also gives Boston the potential luxury of resting injured players a bit longer.

Starting center Kristaps Porzingis has not played since April 29 because of a strained right calf. Backup center Luke Kornet sat out Saturday with a sprained left wrist, and coach Joe Mazzulla has no reason to rush either back now.

Plus, if the Celtics pull off their first series sweep since beating Brooklyn 4-0 in the first round of the 2022 playoffs, they could get even more rest depending on the twists and turns in the Dallas-Minnesota series. The Mavericks took a 2-0 lead into Sunday night’s game at Dallas.

First, though, Boston is focused on closing out the Pacers.

“I believe these past few years we’ve had some battles and I feel like our group, we’ve been through it, we understand it, we’ve had some grueling, tough series and this one is no different,” said Celtics center Al Horford, who made seven 3-pointers in Game 3. “This team, it’s a very good team. They’re very dangerous, there’s a reason they’re here, and I know we’re up three, but it could easily be very different.”

The Pacers know it, too, and that’s why they intend to show the basketball world just how much fight they still have left Monday night.

“We’ve got to give everything that we have,” said Pacers forward Pascal Siakam, who won an NBA crown with Toronto in 2019. “Obviously, to this point we’ve had an incredible season and nobody wants to see it end. So we’re going to fight to the end, and I think it’s like let’s get one win and give everything we have to win that game.”

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