When Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown each score 30 points in the same game, the Boston Celtics almost always win. They fell to 24-2 in such games on Monday night, however, as the Indiana Pacers pulled away down the stretch for a thrilling 122-112 win in the first quarterfinal of the NBA's In-Season Tournament.
The heightened focus on the inaugural event made the game feel much more important than a normal regular season contest, and credit to the NBA for pulling that off as the atmosphere and intensity were top-notch. An unintended consequence, though, is the desire to make the analysis match that gravity.
That would be a mistake. There's no reason for the Celtics, who remain atop the Eastern Conference at 15-5, to overreact to such a loss, especially considering some of the shotmaking by the Pacers in the second half. Boston had a few too many turnovers, along with a bunch of missed open 3s -- and, went nuts. The Pacers won that game moreso than the Celtics lost it.
All that being said, there's always something you can take from each game. For the Celtics, Kristaps Porzingis' continued absence and a no-show from much of the supporting cast highlighted the concerns about this team's depth in the wake of their offesason maneuvers. In essence, they contracted Marcus Smart, Malcolm Brogdon, Grant Williams and Robert Williams III into Jrue Holiday and Porzingis.
The result is arguably the best starting lineup in the NBA and a total question mark of a bench. Tatum, Brown, Porzingis, Holiday and Derrick White have a plus-27 net rating, which is the best of any five-man group that has played 100 minutes together, but the bench is only averaging 25.7 points per game, which is 29th in the league.
That puts immense pressure on the starting lineup to not only perform every night, but stay healthy. To their credit, they largely have this season. Porzingis' recent calf injury, which has kept him out of the past four games, is the only thing close to an extended absence for any of their key players.
They were not able to do so on Monday, however. All players not named Tatum and Brown combined for 50 points on 19-of-48 shooting. White, who faded after a strong start, took the blame, telling reporters "personally, I felt like I was horrible in the second half."
Looking specifically at the bench, Sam Hauser and Luke Kornet were the only reserves to get on the board. In the Celtics' five losses, they have lost the bench battle four times, and been outscored 161-106 in the process. While Hauser, who had five 3s on Monday, is an elite shooter, the Celtics simply don't have much in the way of game-changers off the bench. That is exacerbated when one of the starting five is out and Al Horford has to move into the starting lineup.
The good news is it appears Porzingis will be back soon. He traveled with the team to Indianapolis and is set to ramp up his workouts. "He's been on the court shooting," Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla said on Monday. "I don't think he's done anything up and down yet. I think that's coming in the next couple of days."
Porzingis makes the team whole, and everything is easier when he's out there, even for Tatum and Brown. In addition to his work on the defensive end, he draws attention from opponents and gives their late-game offense some much-needed variety. Meanwhile, Horford can shift back to the bench, which helps save his legs and means Kornet doesn't have to play as much, cutting down on those reserve-heavy units.
But even once Porzingis returns, his long-term health and the Celtics lack of reliable options off the bench will remain a concern.