East finals feature favorite vs. underdogs

SunStar Basketball
SunStar Basketball

BOSTON-- So much about the journey the Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers have taken to the Eastern Conference finals has been about what – or specifically who – they haven’t had to face to get to here.

Top-seeded Boston mostly coasted to a 4-1 first-round series win over a Miami Heat team that played without Jimmy Butler, the player who’d tormented and broken the heart of the Celtics in Game 7 of last season’s conference finals. They then posted another 4-1 series victory in the second round over an injury-ravaged Cleveland Cavaliers team that didn’t have All-Star Donovan Mitchell for the final two games.

The route for sixth-seeded Indiana has also had some notable hurdles removed.

The Pacers needed six games to earn a first-round win over a Milwaukee team missing Giannis Antetokounmpo. They then outlasted a New York Knicks team that was leading the series 3-2 before tripping over a rash of injuries that included star Jalen Brunson breaking his hand in the Pacers’ lopsided Game 7 victory.

But neither Boston nor Indiana is focused on the narratives surrounding the paths they took to get to this point. They’re here. And beginning with Game 1 on Tuesday night in Boston, it’s now NBA Finals or bust for both.

For the Celtics, that means blocking out reminders of the championship expectations that have hovered over them throughout the season.

“You just got to focus on what matters most,” Celtics forward Jaylen Brown said. “That’s your team. That’s each possession in front of you. That’s whatever your job is. ... Just be able to focus the mind on what matters because it’s easy to get distracted or eluded from what the overall goal and what the target is when you start to entertain kind of everything that’s going around you.”

Indiana guard Tyrese Haliburton said the expectations they’ve had internally were always high.

“We had preseason camp in Nashville – just players, no coaches. That’s what we communicated from the jump. That we expected to be here. This ain’t a surprise to us,” he said. “It’s not a fluke. We expect this from our group. Once we added (Pascal Siakam) we knew we could really take off.”

Pacers coach Rick Carlisle is fully embracing the idea that his team is the “uninvited guest” among the NBA’s final four teams.

“We had some good fortune to get to this moment,” he said. “But our guys did the work to put us in a position to be here.” / AP

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