Rick Carlisle Explains Decision to Pull Pacers Starters Early in Loss to Celtics

His answer may only raise more questions.
Rick Carlisle
Rick Carlisle / David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Despite losing Tyrese Haliburton to a left leg injury late in the third quarter, the Indiana Pacers were within striking distance of the Boston Celtics entering the fourth quarter of Thursday's Game 2. They entered the final frame down by 13 points with the score at 93-80. Between an excellent night from Pascal Siakam and Boston's tendency to get casual down the stretch when everyone believes the game to be in hand, it did not feel like the game was over by a long shot.

However, head coach Rick Carlisle did something rather strange. As the fourth quarter commenced, he subbed out Myles Turner for Isaiah Jackson and Obi Toppin for Doug McDermott. The former isn't that out of the blue; Turner had a bad night and played the entire third quarter. But subbing out Toppin for McDermott was definitely odd given McDermott had not played meaningful minutes at any point this postseason, appearing only in blowouts and the final minutes of already-decided games.

It turned out indicative of a larger strategy from Carlisle. Despite the Pacers hanging around and not letting the Celtics blow the doors off the game, Carlisle subbed out Siakam (the best remaining player and only consistent scorer without Haliburton) with nine minutes left and Indy down by 15 points. He never saw the floor again. Nor did Turner or fellow starter Aaron Nesmith.

All in all, for the last nine minutes of Game 2 the only starter who saw real time was Andrew Nembhard. From all perspectives it looked like Carlisle just... punted on any chance to win the game with a ton of time to go. In fairness, the Pacers were not likely to mount a double-digit comeback without their best player in enemy territory. But weird things happen in the NBA and now that just about everybody on the court can shoot three-pointers there is no such thing as a safe lead.

Carlisle was asked about the puzzling decision to bench his most important players while the game within reach. His answer may leave something to be desired for Pacers fans. It can be found starting at the 2:10 mark, with a transcription below:

"To look at some guys that I thought needed a look," said Carlisle when asked why he went to the end of the bench halfway through the fourth quarter. "McDermott went in there and played well. Isaiah Jackson brought a lot of fight to the game. Jalen Smith hasn't had much of an opportunity to play in the playoffs so I wanted to see where he was at. We weren't giving up, but it was an opportunity to get fresh guys in there to fight. They did some good things. The guys that had played to that point, Pascal was very tired. Aaron was tired and he had four fouls. So... that was it."

One can certainly pick up what Carlisle is putting down. The Pacers played the final game of a grueling, physical series against the New York Knicks on Sunday and an overtime contest against the Celtics in Game 1 on Tuesday. The exhaustion takes its toll, and while he'd never come out and say as much, it was probabaly the wisest move long-term to rest the key players in the fourth quarter instead of pushing them to high minute counts in an effort to overcome a double-digit deficit to the best team in basketball.

On the other hand... it's the playoffs! Everyone is tired! The Pacers were massive underdogs heading into the series and that was before Haliburton pulled up lame in Game 2. The Celtics have a well-earned reputation for taking their foot off the gas no matter how important the game is. The entire complexion of the series changes if Indy can pull off that comeback. No matter how unlikely it was to happen, a strong argument can be made that the Pacers should have done everything they could to do the impossible.

But they did not, and the Celtics took Game 2. Indiana's next chance to take one comes on Saturday at 8:30 p.m. ET for Game 3.

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Liam McKeone


Liam McKeone is a Senior Writer for the Breaking & Trending News Team at Sports Illustrated. In addition to his role as a writer, he collaborates with other teams across Minute Media to help define his team’s content strategy. He has been in the industry as a content creator since 2017, and prior to joining SI in 2024, Liam worked for NBC Sports Boston and The Big Lead. In addition to his work as a writer, he has hosted the Press Pass Podcast covering sports media and The Big Stream covering pop culture. A graduate of Fordham University, Liam is always up for a good debate and enjoys loudly arguing about sports, rap music, books, and video games. Liam has been a member of the National Sports Media Association (NSMA) since 2020.