In the past month, the Celtics have sampled the NBA’s top shelf.
They traveled to South Beach to test the two-time champions, visited the league’s finest vintage in San Antonio, and returned to TD Garden Friday to face the NBA’s Indiana-based bulldozer.
Believe it or not, the Celtics have actually played some of their best ball against that elite troika, one that can usually be found playing deep into the summer, chasing a championship.
The Celtics beat the Heat in Miami, gave the Spurs trouble for a half in Texas, and then made the Pacers sweat for most of Friday.
But the Celtics pulled out only one win in those games (Miami), and it required near-perfect play from start to finish, with a buzzer-beating miracle shot as the topper.
Against the other two teams, the better squad used the second half to topple a lesser opponent.
The Spurs did it Wednesday, and the Pacers followed that up two days later by squashing the Celtics, 97-82, to improve to 11-1, the best mark in the Eastern Conference.
It took Celtics rookie coach Brad Stevens two seasons at Butler before he amassed 10 total losses, as he lost four games in his first season, six in the next.
But one month into the Celtics season, Stevens’s team has a 4-10 record and has lost six straight games. It is on pace for 58 losses — Stevens had just 49 in six seasons at Butler.
“You’ve got to take away the positive that we were able to play with those teams at least for periods of the game,” Stevens said of games against the Heat, Spurs, and Pacers.
“And hopefully we can get it to the point where, like in Miami, we can finish a game off.”
Boston did not finish Friday’s game off — not even close.
The Celtics led, 50-42, at intermission, their largest lead, after Jordan Crawford banked in a 31-footer at the halftime buzzer. He made all eight of his shots in the first half.
By that point, the Celtics were shooting 59 percent (23 of 39) against a team that entered the game leading the NBA in defensive field goal percentage (39.5).
In other words, the Celtics had played almost perfect — and led by just 8 points.
But in the third quarter, the Pacers’ impressive defense locked down, and the Celtics fell apart.
Boston had nearly four times as many turnovers (11) as field goals (three) in the quarter and was outscored, 25-8.
Indiana’s defense was impressive, and the Celtics couldn’t even get into their offensive sets.
“For whatever reason we ran out of gas, and largely due to what they were doing,” Stevens said. “That was a really good basketball team in the second half that we played against.”
Pacers forwards Paul George and David West combined for 18 points in that decisive third quarter, and their team poured it on in the fourth, building a lead as large as 20.
“We’ve got to put 48 minutes together, instead of 24,” said Celtics forward Jared Sullinger.
That has become the mantra of these Celtics, but in games against elite competition, it would take 48 minutes of perfection, plus many errors from their foe, for the Celtics to have even a fighting chance.
In the third quarter, though, Celtics swingman Gerald Wallace, who finished with five turnovers, said the Pacers “kind of hit us in the mouth and we didn’t take it so well.”
Which is an understatement.
Still, Wallace said, “You take the turnovers away, we put ourselves in pretty good position.”
But those turnovers were not stricken from the record, and once again the points scored off them were chief contributors to the Celtics’ demise.
The Pacers cashed in on 23 Celtics miscues, turning them into a whopping 30 points.
The Celtics, on the other hand, scored just 12 points off of 16 Pacers turnovers.
“We’ve got to value the ball like gold,” Sullinger said. “Understand that, the key turnovers can’t happen, just can’t happen.
George, an early MVP candidate, finished with a game-high 27 points, living up to Stevens’s pregame description of being so good that he’s simply “ridiculous.”
West and Luis Scola added 17 points apiece. Lance Stephenson had a triple-double with 10 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 assists.
Crawford scored just 5 points after halftime, finishing with 24 on 10-of-12 shooting.
“I’m very disappointed in myself,” Crawford said. “It was nothing they did. I just didn’t complete the game.”
And he said the same of the Celtics.
“We didn’t finish strong for 48 minutes,” he said. “That’s what you take out of it. Having a good half is having a good half. That’s pretty much what it is.”
Jeff Green scored 20 points, and Sullinger, who made his second start, added 13 points.
Rookie forward Kelly Olynyk also started, as Stevens looked for Olynyk and Sullinger to spark the offense, but Olynyk suffered a sprained right ankle in the first half and did not return to the game.
Olynyk, who played just 12 minutes, is questionable for the Celtics’ game Saturday against the Hawks in Atlanta.
Also questionable: when the Celtics’ losing streak will end.
But take solace in the fact that they can contend with the NBA’s best — at least in moments.
“Hopefully we don’t get down,” Stevens said.
A win would help.Baxter Holmes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BaxterHolmes.