INDIANAPOLIS — The applause and cheers from the Indiana Pacers crowd kept building, and then many fans stood, still applauding and cheering, all their eyes fixed on one man: Brad Stevens.
The cameras broadcast his face on all four sides of the massive videoboard hanging over center court at Bankers Life Fieldhouse during the introductions Sunday.
And then amid all the cheers and attention, Stevens, a native son of Indiana who had come home for the first time since he left Butler University to coach the Celtics, offered a polite nod and a slight wave to a crowd filled with scores of close friends and family. But he offered nothing more.
Then the game began, and it was a contest for only the first quarter, as the best Pacers team that Stevens said he has ever seen since he started cheering for them as a kid proceeded to blow out the rebuilding team he is coaching now, 106-79.
“I probably would’ve been better off just sitting up in the stands with somebody, the way that we played,” a distraught Stevens said after his team lost its third straight game, falling to 12-17 and out of the top spot in the Atlantic Division.
Stevens pretty much summed up the game in his initial postgame remarks:
“First of all, they’re really good. Secondly, we weren’t very good. So it’s a double whammy.”
Yes, the Pacers, who improved to 22-5, are quite good and they played like it Sunday.
The Celtics? Well, Gerald Wallace, as usual, put it best.
“I felt like one team was here to play, the other team was already on their Christmas break, and it showed,” the veteran swingman said. “They pretty much dominated the game in every aspect of the game.
“We wasn’t even here tonight.”
The Pacers led the inferior Celtics by as many as 27 while crushing the Celtics in the paint, 50-22. It was the Pacers’ widest winning point differential all season.
The outcome was decided in the second quarter, when the Pacers used a 17-3 run to put a stranglehold on the game.
By halftime, Jeff Green, Brandon Bass, and Jordan Crawford were a combined 5 of 16 from the floor and the Celtics trailed, 52-37.
In the third quarter, MVP candidate Paul George toyed with the Celtics, scored 18 of his game-high 24 points.
He scored from inside and out, hitting all six of his shots, including two from 3-point range, and George made it look easy.
The fourth quarter was garbage time, inconsequential except for the backups.
“We came out aggressive and playing our game and in the second quarter we got them on their heels and then we kept them there,” said Pacers center Roy Hibbert, who had 15 points and 12 rebounds. “They’re a young team and still learning.”
What did Stevens learn from this game?
“Not a lot,” he said. “I learned that we’ve got a long way to go, but we’ve played better than this.”
The Pacers are a good team that’s playing well, no doubt about that.
“But that doesn’t excuse anything,” Stevens said. “If we want to be a good team, we have to play well against the elite teams.”
However, the Celtics, who were coming off a pair of losses in which they blew huge leads, didn’t have the right mind-set when they walked into the building, Wallace said.
“You could see it going into the game,” he said. “We’re a young team. We got four or five days off for Christmas break. And guys are already thinking about [vacation]. [The Pacers] don’t have a break. They have to play on Christmas day. So this was a normal game for them. And they approached and played it like it. We approached it and played like we were already on break.”
Danny Ganger added 12 points off the bench. Lance Stephenson had his third triple-double of the season with 12 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists.
Avery Bradley scored 13 to lead the Celtics, though he scored just 4 after the first quarter.
The Celtics won’t play again until Saturday against Cleveland at TD Garden, and perhaps they could use the time off after such a beating.
“It would be good for us, a chance to get away from everything, relax and try to get our mind-set to the winning ways that we had,” Green said.
Jared Sullinger disagreed.
“No, I’m not glad to have a break,” he said after scoring 6 points.
“When you lose by this much, you don’t really want a break. We just want to come out and play again, honestly.”
Stevens will spend that time with family, and he’ll try to escape this loss.
“I have a hard time taking myself away from it, but I will, because I owe my kids and my wife that,” he said.
He’ll work on their next practice, scheduled for the day after Christmas, when the Celtics hope to start putting the pieces together again after being torn apart for three straight games, none more humiliating than what occurred during Sunday.Baxter Holmes can be reached at email@example.com Follow him on Twitter @BaxterHolmes.