The 2023-24 Boston Celtics were so dominant throughout the regular season that some talking heads wondered if they'd be able to handle the adversity of the NBA Playoffs. They wondered if the Celtics could get it done when it wasn't all smooth sailing.  Boston's 114-111 win in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals over the Indiana Pacers provided a solid answer to that lingering question.

After trailing by as many as 18 points, the Celtics roared back down the stretch to steal the game from the Pacers on Saturday night. Boston now leads the Eastern Conference Finals 3-0 and became the first team in the last 25 years to triumph in multiple games in a series after trailing by at least five points in the final two minutes of the final quarter, per play-by-play radio announcer Sean Grande.

So, how did the Celtics escape Game 3 with an improbable win? Let's look at three takeaways from Boston's successful comeback in Game 3 against the Pacers.

Celtics ramped up their defensive intensity

Indiana Pacers forward Pascal Siakam (43) controls the ball against Boston Celtics guard Jrue Holiday (4) during the fourth quarter of game three of the eastern conference finals in the 2024 NBA playoffs at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

In the first half, the Green Team got exposed on defense. The Pacers, who were without star point guard Tyrese Haliburton due to a hamstring injury, had it humming on offense.

Indiana's 42 points in the paint in the first half were the most the Celtics had given up inside the arc all season. At the end of the first two quarters, the Pacers were shooting an incredible 63.6% from the floor and outscoring Boston on second-chance points as well as fast-break points.

I think Indiana played well. I mean, we can say we didn’t play as well tonight but I felt like they just, you had to be out there to feel it, they were just flying around,” Celtics star Jaylen Brown said in his postgame remarks. “And then they were shooting the ball well. Some of those guys turned into f***ing Michael Jordan or whatever. And we was like, ‘Man, what is going on?’ You know, we couldn’t figure it out.”

Although Boston's defense struggled to start, the C's reached another gear in the second half of the contest. They held Indiana to 38.3% shooting from the field and let up just two points in the final 2:38 of the fourth quarter.

First three quarters we didn’t really have any answers, but we kind of stayed close enough and then in the fourth quarter they finally slowed down,” Brown recalled. “We were able to get some stops and we pulled one out of the hat.”

In the final 24 minutes of the game, Boston was much more active defensively. For example, the Celtics had nine blocks in the last two quarters while the Pacers had zero. This elite shot blocking and disruption of Indiana's offensive flow helped Boston bounce back late.

You know, we got some guys with plenty of experience and we just stayed with it,” Brown said. “I think that’s what allowed us to have success and it’s tough to do no matter who you’re playing. But, I think that’s what allowed us to help us win this game. We just had an amazing level of grit today.”

Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown were up to the task

Speaking of Brown, the Celtics star delivered in Game 3 alongside fellow star Jayson Tatum. The dynamic duo combined for 60 points and showed up when Boston needed it most.

Brown notched 24 points while shooting 10-for-18 and Tatum dropped 36 points while hitting 12 of his 23 shot attempts. Best of all, Boston's stars, who have the ball in their hands more often than not, had just one turnover all evening.

I mean, we believed. We believed that we still could win this game,” Tatum said during his postgame press conference. “There was a lot of time left. It’s damn sure not time to give up or even have that thought creep into your mind. We never thought that. And any timeout that we had, any guy that was on that court, we knew that we could play better, and if we did play better, we would give ourselves a chance. And that was just the mindset throughout the game.”

This kind of relentless attitude helped propel Tatum, Brown, and the Celtics as a whole. Even with the Pacers playing banged-up, Boston had to have its stars at their best to will it back into the game. Tatum and Brown did just that in a hostile environment, as the Pacers were previously unbeaten at home in the 2024 playoffs.

“We knew it was going to be a tough battle,” Tatum admitted. “And just, it took everything for us to win this game. Being down 18, we needed every stop, every deflection, every rebound, every shot that we made. We needed every ounce of that. So, as a competitor, when you play this game, it’s a very emotional sport.”

Al Horford turned back the clock

Outside of Tatum and Brown, the Celtics had multiple players come up big on Saturday. Guard Jrue Holiday had the game-winning steal and guard Derrick White had four blocks, which was more than the Pacers had all game.

Yet, veteran center Al Horford arguably had the most significant impact for Boston. The 37-year-old, who's turning 38 on June 3, put up 23 points (his most of this postseason), five rebounds, and three blocks in 35 minutes of play. His 3-point shooting performance was especially crucial, as the seven triples he connected on were the most of his playoff career.

Boston's elder statesman went 7-for-12 from deep while the rest of his teammates went 9-for-34 from beyond the arc. Meanwhile, the Pacers only had five 3-pointers after 48 minutes.

The biggest thing we understood is that we needed to continue to play, continue to trust each other, and I felt like we had opportunities early in the fourth, to continue to trust each other,” Horford said following the narrow win. “I give this group a lot of credit for continuing to stay with it despite us not making shots.”

Horford's shining moment came with 1:12 left in the fourth quarter. When Tatum drove to the rim and drew three Indiana defenders, Horford was completely alone in the corner. He then got the ball and didn't hesitate on the open look, cashing his final 3-pointer of the game to make it just a two-point game.

It’s pretty special,” Horford said of the clutch play. “He drove to the basket, he felt like he had a lane — I don’t know how he got it there, he had to improvise. He just continued to, time after time, make the right play. That was an unbelievable play that he made.”

On the next possession, Holiday scored an and-1 layup that gave Boston a 112-111 advantage with less than 40 ticks remaining.

Because of the heroics of the starters, the Celtics have a chance to clinch the series with a win on Monday night in Indiana. The Pacers will be fighting for their lives, though, so the C's expect a difficult battle.

“We know for one second we can’t relax,” Tatum stated. “A year ago, we was down 0-3, and we figured out a way to force it to seven. So, we not looking past Monday or anything like that. We’re just taking it one game at a time, and knowing we have a special opportunity to go back to the Finals.”