The forward battle in Pacers-Celtics is going to be tough for Indy

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - APRIL 05: Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics looks to the basket against Doug McDermott #20 of the Indiana Pacers in the first half of a game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on April 5, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using the photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - APRIL 05: Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics looks to the basket against Doug McDermott #20 of the Indiana Pacers in the first half of a game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on April 5, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using the photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) /

In a preview of an Indiana Pacers series against Boston, looking at the unique group of forwards on each team is a must.

The hardest part of previewing a position battle in a series between the Indiana Pacers and Boston Celtics is that Brad Stevens isn’t a fan of positional designations.

He calls it “positionless basketball”. His exact quote is this, from CelticsWire:

“We’re not playing in the day and age where we’re numbering all of the guys, what position they are. We’re gonna have all those guys out there at once, and hopefully be very versatile.”

Essentially, his sets/personnel are catered to the categories of guards, wings, and bigs. In theory, you could make these designations with every team, but the Pacers are more conventional with their positions 1-5. These facts butting heads makes it a little harder to compare players at the forward position, but we can try.

Some of the Celtics players are in obvious buckets. Gordon Hayward is a forward. Marcus Morris is a forward. Those two are easy. Then it gets a little harder.

Jayson Tatum? He’s probably more forward than guard. Jaylen Brown? He’s probably more guard than forward. Al Horford? He’s like Domantas Sabonis – a center that occasionally plays the 4.

Out of that group, I’m only counting Tatum. Horford got looked at in the bigs breakdown and Brown in the comparison of the guards. Go read those. After you finish reading this, of course.

So we are looking at Tatum, Hayward, and Morris versus the Indiana Pacers group of Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young, and Doug McDermott.

Right away internally, I thought that Tatum is the best of that group. But is he?

Advanced Table
1Bojan Bogdanovic2018-192981257316.1.613.367.2901.512.
2Jayson Tatum2018-192079245515.1.547.300.2203.017.710.410.

Provided by View Original Table
Generated 4/12/2019.

Tatum will be better at his peak, by a lot too, but right now it’s closer than we all think. On the flip side, I wanted to write off Hayward as the best of the group since he stunk for a massive portion of this season. But since he returned from a neck strain last month he has been fantastic, averaging 16.4 points on 58.5% shooting. That’s approaching the player we saw in Utah. If Jazz Hayward is back, then that is the best forward of the bunch.

The advanced stats say that Thad Young is the most impactful (not the best, big difference!) forward on either team. That makes a lot of sense. His defense, both inside and out, is stellar and once he added a 3-point shot this season he became a multi-faceted offensive player. The Celtics probably won’t guard him on the outside, but with Marcus Smart out for the series, Thad might be the best perimeter defender available for either team. He is going to be huge.

Young is going to have to guard the best non-Kyrie player on the court at all times. In the Pacers matchup with the Celtics in March, he held Al Horford to 5 points on 36 possessions when he was guarding him. Al had 14 points on his other 36 possessions when guarded by someone other than Thad. That is what he brings to the table.

On the other end of the floor, The Celtics just flat out don’t guard Thad Young when he is outside the 3-point arc:

Young is going to have a large impact on the series thanks to his defense, but he is going to have to hit those outside shots to make the defense respect him and make the Celtics move. It’s paramount that those shots fall in.

The Celtics will role with Al Horford at the 4 to start games, but he is more of a big man than a power forward. He will play similar to the way Sabonis does when he shares the floor with Turner. On the flip side, Marcus Morris can come in and play the 4 (and other forward spots) and he is more forward than big.

Morris played sensationally pre-All-Star break. He was almost a 50/40/90 card-carrying club member, with a true shooting percentage north of 60. He was supremely effective. Since the All-Star break, however, his efficiency has created. His TS% in the 22 games since has been sub-50%. He cannot make shots anymore.

If Morris is hitting, that’s bad news for the Pacers. But he often plays a “your turn, my turn” style of offense, which is bad for rhythm and great for the Pacers if his shots aren’t falling. I wouldn’t be worried about him from a Pacers standpoint unless he really gets going.

Speaking of getting going, the Pacers absolutely HAVE to get their best scoring forward going. Dad bod, Babo Barretta, the Croatian Jordan, whatever you want to call him, Bojan has to be on his A game.

When Bojan shot 50% or better this season, the Pacers were an impossibly good 31-14. That’s 56 win pace. In the two games against the Celtics in which Boston dominated, Bojan shot 4/17 and took under 10 attempts in both. In the two close battles, Bogey was 14/24 and had no problem getting his looks up. It is imperative that the latter happens instead of the former.

Without Marcus Smart, Bojan will likely be guarded by Jaylen Brown. Bojan shot 5/5 with Brown on him in the Pacers lone win over the Celtics this season. Overall, he was 6/7 with Brown as his primary defender this season. Brown isn’t great off the ball, which could allow Bogey to get free:

Bojan has a good chance to get going, given his matchup. It is crucial he takes advantage.

Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum will be like Bojan in that getting them going will be big for Boston. They are both solid scorers in their own ways, capable of doing damage to both the first and second unit.

Tatum has seen his efficiency drop in his Sophomore season, but that isn’t unexpected given his expanded role, shot profile, and expectations. Overall, though, he is still a solid player. He’s a low turnover guy who just takes too many long 2s. He’s still a dangerous scorer, especially when he drives. He hit 68% of his shots at the rim this season.

He’s also dangerous as a catch and shooter, hitting 40% from deep. Given that defenses focus most of their attention on Irving and subsequent actions, Tatum is often left open, or at least in favorable scoring situations. His 16 points per game this season is a testament to that.

Tatum canned 67 points on just 51 shots against the Pacers this season. The key will be to stay home on him and not help off too far. Bojan will have to stay alert guarding him away from the play, and he will have to play his best defense when the youngster has the ball. Bogey did well in the playoffs on D last season, so he may be up to the task.

The final Celtic forward worth mentioning is Indianapolis native Hayward. Hayward had a rocky season, and most of the Celtics contingent considered him to be a negative player all season long. But he’s a good passer who can dribble by just about anyone, and he’s tall. That’s a hard dude to contain, even without the shot.

More from 8 Points, 9 Seconds

Recently, Hayward has been filling it up. Since returning from a neck strain in mid-March, we have seen the former Butler forward hit a new level. He averaged 16.4 points on 58.5% shooting over the final 8 games of the season, including a 9/9 performance against Indiana.

Thad can guard Hayward with the second unit, but if he goes microwave on offense as he did in BLF a few weeks ago, nobody can contain him. Especially if Doug McDermott is the one guarding him if Thad is out. Hayward still isn’t the player he was in Utah, but Indiana will just have to hope he’s pre-neck strain Hayward and not the guy who lit them up a few weeks ago.

Doug McDermott has been saved for last here, but mostly because his impact opportunities are pretty straightforward. Play 15 minutes, hit outside shots, and cut hard when there is space.

McDermott has become a masterful finisher at the basket, and we all know how well he can shoot from the outside. That kind of scoring impact can be useful off the bench.

But his defense stinks, and the Celtics have a plethora of big wings that they can force him to guard. That means it is going to be almost impossible for him to have a positive impact… unless he’s knocking down everything. He was 7/20 against Boston this season. That won’t cut it. Thankfully the series is on the road, where McD is a better shooter.

Doug can do stuff on the basketball floor, but he is a metaphor for this forward battle since he doesn’t add much.

The depth on the Celtics side is just better. Even if Thad is impactful and Bojan is better than Tatum, the total value of Tatum/Hayward/Morris is higher than Bogdanovic/Young/McDermott. But that is too simple of an analysis. I think for the playoffs, the Pacers forwards have a higher floor (especially with Smart out so Bojan can hoop) but a lower ceiling. Whichever group ends up playing better is going to influence the series a ton.

Next. 4 stats that defined the Pacers-Celtics matchups this season. dark

These are two good groups of forwards. They are both good enough to pull momentum in the series. The battle will be fun, but it will be challenging for the Pacers.