brunos_blog_400You scratch and claw all year, overcome the loss of your leading scorer, sit comfortably atop your division and second in the conference, and this could be your reward:

A first-round playoff matchup against a proud, accomplished, veteran team that was one victory away from the NBA Finals last season.

Fair? Hardly. But should the Pacers wind up bracketed with the Celtics, who visit Bankers Life Fieldhouse tonight, it most certainly would be more fun than the average opening series.

Well, fun for us. For the Pacers, not so much.

“Them being a sixth or seventh seed, they play like a top-three team in the league,” Paul George said. “We can’t let it fool us.”

Keep in mind, the last time these teams met Kevin Garnett was ejected for hitting Tyler Hansbrough in the head and the Pacers picked up three technical fouls. And that was a 19-point Boston blowout.

In early January.

Makes you wonder what it’d be like in April.

FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON WAY TO FUTURE

In late January, the Celtics were muddling along at 20-23, clinging to the eighth seed in the East, just 2½ games up on the Sixers. And then Rajon Rondo went down for the season with a knee injury, which surely meant it was all over in Boston.

It was time, the storyline went, to trade Garnett and/or Paul Pierce and move on.

A funny thing happened on the way to the future. The present refused to fade away. Boston has won 12 of 16 since then and now is just 1½ games out of fourth place.

“That’s a system team,” George said. “When you have a system team, look at San Antonio, they have guys that can step in regardless what number or who’s name is on the jersey and still play well.

“I think that’s the case with the Celtics. They picked up guys like Courtney Lee and Jason Terry and Avery Bradley’s been playing well. How our team has blossomed when guys went down, it’s been the same for them.”

These have not been pedestrian victories for the Celtics. In their surge they have beaten the Heat, Bulls, Clippers, Lakers, Nuggets, Warriors and Jazz.

WORST-CASE PLAYOFF SCENARIO

Much can happen in the season’s final quarter, so there’s no certainty these two teams will pair off in the first round. But this much we can say: of the potential matchups for the Pacers, the Celtics are by far the most daunting.

Milwaukee? An interesting team but no real threat.

Brooklyn? The Nets have given the Pacers problems, but lack the Celtics’ postseason presence.

Atlanta? The Hawks waved the white flag when they tried to trade Josh Smith before the deadline, and even failed at that.

Tonight’s game just has to be what it is – a potential playoff preview – to take on added significance for the Pacers.

“I think it’s getting to the stage where how it’s getting fun with opponents that we match up with,” George said. “We can come into the game thinking it’s going to be a playoff (preview) and it’s very realistic that could be our first-round battle.”

Forget where the teams are in the standings. Indiana is trying to get where Boston has been the past several years; the Pacers are the team with something to prove.

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