The Whiteboard: T.J. McConnell is a hero and Jayson Tatum is ready for Brooklyn

Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, NBA Playoffs, The Whiteboard

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The Western Conference play-in games kick off tonight with the Grizzlies and Spurs starting at 7:30 p.m. ET and the Warriors and Lakers at 10:00 p.m. ET. Whoever wins between the Lakers and Warriors will secure the No. 7 seed and get a first-round matchup with the Phoenix Suns. The loser will have to play the winner of the Spurs-Grizzlies game with the No. 8 seed on the line.

The biggest question for the Lakers is obviously the status of LeBron James who re-aggravated his ankle sprain against the New Orleans Pelicans. According to Frank Vogel, he was able to practice on Tuesday and will be in the lineup tonight against the Warriors. Exactly how healthy he is and how hard he’s able to go remains to be seen.

T.J. McConnell is everything for the Pacers right now

The Pacers’ blowout of the Hornets seemed to unfold so quickly — up 16 points at the end of the first quarter, up 24 at the half — that it was hard to pin down any one important detail. Indiana was red-hot from beyond the arc in the first quarter (6-of-8 from Doug McDermott and Oshae Brissett) and the Hornets were decidedly not (1-of-6 for LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier, Devonte’ Graham and Miles Bridges). Almost everyone on the Pacers played well but I feel like T.J. McConnell’s importance is still flying under the radar.

He’s been simply incredible for the Pacers all season long and he was key in this game as well. The first three quarters were really the entirety of the meaningful basketball in this game, by that point the Pacers were up by 30 and the outcome was basically a lock. In those three quarters, McConnell had 14 points (on 11 shots), 4 rebounds and 2 assists and his disruptive defense was a huge part of the struggles for Charlotte’s creators. McConnell finished the game with 4 steals, 6 deflections and 3 loose balls recovered (as many as the Hornets managed as a team).

The Pacers now get one more game against the Wizards to try and secure an actual playoff spot and McConnell’s harassing defense could be essential against Washington’s backcourt, particularly with Bradley Beal banged up. During the regular season, McConnell spent a combined 32 possessions as the primary defender against Beal or Westbrook. They attempted just one shot (and missed) during those possessions with 4 assists and 2 turnovers. If he can put pressure and force the Wizards supporting cast to shoulder more creation load it could give Indiana a huge advantage.

How do Jayson Tatum and the Boston Celtics matchup with the Brooklyn Nets?

Jayson Tatum went en fuego against the Wizards, putting up 50 including 23 in an enormous, high-leverage third quarter that gave the Celtics the separation they needed. That pushes the Wizards into their single-elimination game Thursday against the Pacers and it locks the Celtics into a No. 2 – No. 7 first-round series against the Brooklyn Nets.

The ties between these teams are deep and there is plenty at stake, practically and emotionally, for both teams. But the Celtics will certainly have their work cut out for them. They lost all three regular-season games against the Nets this season and they had Jaylen Brown for two of them. Brown is done for the season and both Robert Williams and Marcus Smart suffered injuries against Washington. Even if they’re available for the start of the first round they’re likely to be somewhat less than 100 percent.

On the other side, Kyrie Irving has torched the Celtics this year. In those three regular-season games, he averaged 30.7 points, 7.7 rebounds and 7.3 assists, shooting 50.8 percent from the field, 12-of-24 on 3-pointers and making all 16 of his free-throw attempts. The opportunity to torment Boston for an entire series is going to have him licking his chops. Boston has shown they’re not ready to fold on this season yet but lingering health issues and depth are going to be a major problem against a team with much more talent at the top end. Maybe they can just hope Tatum has a few more 50-point games in him?

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