Celtics use furious rally to win Game 3, put Pacers on brink

Celtics fight back to take commanding 3-0 series lead over Pacers (3:30)

The Celtics dig deep from 18 points down to secure a 114-111 Game 3 victory over the Pacers on the road. (3:30)

INDIANAPOLIS -- As Andrew Nembhard came streaking down the left side of the court in the closing moments of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals inside Gainbridge Fieldhouse, with his Indiana Pacers down one and looking to, somehow, claw their way back into this series with All-NBA point guard Tyrese Haliburton watching in street clothes, Boston Celtics guard Jrue Holiday was with him step for step.

But then, as Nembhard tried to cut into the middle of the court -- where he and the Pacers had feasted on Boston's defense for most of the night -- Holiday knew what was coming.

"He's a right-hand driver," Holiday would say later, "and he'd been very, very aggressive all night."

And, as Nembhard went to that right hand, Holiday stole the ball from him and raced to the other end of the court, where he eventually hit a pair of free throws that provided the final scoring margin in this game:

That score -- Celtics 114, Pacers 111 -- gave Boston a 3-0 lead in this best-of-seven series and moved the Celtics to within a single victory of advancing to the NBA Finals for a second time in three years. And, after the Celtics spent so much of this game watching Indiana get whatever it wanted defensively, it was fitting that, after Boston completely flipped that script in the closing minutes of the game, it was a defensive play by Holiday, long considered one of the league's elite perimeter defenders, that became the final nail in Indiana's coffin.

"That's a trademark steal that he always gets with the inside hand," Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said. "He gets that a lot usually when a guy is coming down the sideline, but he got it in transition.

"He made a big-time play."

It was exactly the kind of play the Celtics acquired Holiday to make when they swung a blockbuster deal with the Portland Trail Blazers on the eve of training camp -- after Portland had landed Holiday from the Milwaukee Bucks as part of a package for Damian Lillard a few days earlier -- to pair him with Derrick White and form the NBA's best defensive backcourt.

Only moments before his defensive play, however, Holiday had bulled his way to the rim and given Boston the lead by converting an and-1 layup over Pacers forward Pascal Siakam -- another example of the kind of play that Holiday, who finished this game with 14 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals and a block in 38 minutes, was brought to Boston to make as he hopes to follow up his championship ring with the Bucks from three seasons ago with another one next month.

And that layup set the stage for Holiday to then pick Nembhard's pocket in the game's biggest moment.

"I was trying to get a shot up," said Nembhard, who otherwise played a fabulous game, finishing with 32 points and 9 assists in 39 minutes as he took on most of the playmaking duties in place of Haliburton, who reaggravated the left hamstring injury that has bothered him for the past few months in Game 2. "He got in front of me. I lost the ball, slipped. Turnover."

When Nembhard came into the frontcourt against Holiday, he didn't have an advantage, as Boston was quick to get back on defense after a Jayson Tatum drive to the basket resulted in a missed layup -- exactly the kind of situation that, typically, leads to an odd-man advantage for the defending team.

As a result, Pacers coach Rick Carlisle was asked after the game why he chose to let things play out rather than calling a timeout.

"With 8 or 9 seconds left, and you're in transition after a miss ... I trust our players to be able to create better shots than calling timeout and having them set their defense," Carlisle said. "It's more of a play basketball-type situation, and we've done well this year trusting our players."

The Celtics also trust Holiday implicitly to make the right play, and not commit a foul, in that sort of situation -- just as they trusted him to play despite being questionable to play all day and missing shootaround after dealing with a non-COVID illness.

"I mean, can't speak highly enough about Jrue," said Tatum, who had a terrific game for the Celtics, finishing with 36 points, 10 rebounds, 8 assists and no turnovers in 44 minutes. "The ultimate teammate competitor, obviously a champion, wasn't at shootaround today, he was sick. Dealing with chills and stuff like that. And we've all been there, how tough that is, to fight through it, and for him to come out there and lay it all on the line for us, make the game-winning play essentially, especially on the defensive end.

"Jrue is just a big-time player, and he made a tremendous play."

It was a play that, ultimately, helped cover up what was a scattershot performance for most of the night. Indiana led by as many as 18 points in this game despite missing its talisman in Haliburton. Tatum's offense, including 15 first-quarter points, was largely responsible for keeping the Celtics in the game before Boston eventually began chipping away at Indiana's lead late in the third quarter.

Then, the Celtics closed the game with a 13-2 run over the final 2:38 of game action, following up a T.J. McConnell bucket that put Indiana up 109-101 with a Jaylen Brown midrange bucket; a Tatum 3-pointer; an Al Horford corner 3-pointer off a tremendous no-look pass by Tatum; and then Holiday's and-1 layup.

All of that, however, just set the stage for Holiday to steal the show with his defense -- and move Boston to the brink of a return to the league's championship round.

"Jrue is different," Brown said. "Nothing really else to say. Jrue is just different."