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Pacers 102, Celtics 97

Celtics’ bid for upset of Pacers falls short

Paul George (right) reacts after hitting a 3-pointer in the fourth that sealed it for Indiana.

MATTHEW J. LEE/GLOBE STAFF

Paul George (right) reacts after hitting a 3-pointer in the fourth that sealed it for Indiana.

The losses pile up, and they all look the same in the standings — a bunch of L’s.

Some are different than others — a few blowouts here, a few nail-biters there — but most are mirror images, with the Celtics falling night after night because they just lack the talent to win, the main consequence of their current rebuilding phase.

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After Saturday’s 102-97 loss to Indiana, Brad Stevens tried to squeeze out a few positives, a near nightly tradition for the rookie Celtics coach.

It’s never an easy thing for him to do, and during postgame conferences, he struggles to keep his face from contorting in the anguish that he feels inside.

And Saturday was especially difficult.

You could tell that just from the way he sat there, wistfully discussing what could have been.

“I’m excited because we’re getting better,” Stevens said, “but it’s rough, because I want to win that game. I mean, that game — we had a shot to win.”

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It’s true. The Celtics had a shot, which against the Pacers, who improved to a league-best 45-13, that’s all the Celtics, who fell to 20-40, could have asked for after being blown out by a total of 42 points in their last two games against Indiana.

“We were down 2 when [Paul] George hits that three,” Stevens continued.

Just 2 measly points — 96-94.

“If we get a stop and we get the ball back, we’ve got a shot to win that thing against a really good team,” Stevens said.

But they didn’t, because George hit that three, showing why he’s an MVP candidate.

The Pacers ran a play for him that Stevens said they run maybe once or twice a game — “Just set a nice little cross-screen down-screen with good movement.”

Which is really all an elite player like George needs. He came through the screen, grabbed the ball on the right wing, and let it fly. Splash.

“And that’s why he’s who he is,” Stevens said. “He gets that chance and you give a guy like that a chance and you just know it’s not going to end well. . . ”

It didn’t, of course, for the Celtics. The Pacers led, 99-94, with 1:15 left and the Celtics were cooked, once again.

George finished with 25 points and eight rebounds, and he scored 10 of the Pacers’ final 12 points.

“I missed too many easy points and I told myself when it comes back around that I have to make my shots and so I just locked in my focus and my teammates found me,” George said after shooting 9 for 20.

The Celtics, who have lost six of seven, looked back on a 3-pointer that they wished they could’ve had back — not the one George made, but one from Rajon Rondo.

With 4:37 left and the shot clock about to expire, the Celtics’ captain banked in a deep 3-pointer that the referees initially said was good. It gave Boston a 93-90 lead.

But after a review, the officials determined that the shot didn’t beat the shot clock.

“Kind of took our wind out of the sails when that three didn’t count,” said Kris Humphries, who had one of his best games as a Celtic with 18 points and 10 rebounds.

“It let the pressure off of them,” said Celtics forward Jared Sullinger, who returned after a three-game absence with a concussion to score 10 points off the bench.

“They had a lot of pressure and that kind of let them sit back. They were playing frantic when the score was like that.”

Now, the pressure was off.

Then George made a pair of free throws and later added another bucket.

Just like that, the Celtics trailed by 4 instead of being up by 3.

“I’m tired of just taking positives, honestly,” Sullinger said. “It’s time to put some wins on the board. It seems like we’re saying this every other day.”

Boston was led by a game-high 27 points from Jeff Green, who made 10 of 22 shots.

Rajon Rondo gave one of his most spirited efforts, with 12 points, 11 assists, and 7 rebounds in 39 minutes.

Brandon Bass also added 16 points for the Celtics, who were playing without Avery Bradley (ankle), Kelly Olynyk (toe), and Gerald Wallace (ankle, knee).

The game was ultimately decided in the paint, where the Pacers held a 44-30 edge, which helped offset the Celtics’ 17-4 edge in fast-break points.

After trailing by as much as 10 in the first half, the Celtics led, 78-76, going into the fourth quarter.

The score was tight for most of the final frame before the Pacers — and George — put it to bed.

Yes, the Celtics played an excellent team down to the end. They still have nothing to show for it.

“It didn’t say half-L or half-win [in the record], it’s just a loss,” Humphries said. “Losing is not good. Yeah, we competed but we lost.”

Baxter Holmes can be reached at Baxter.Holmes@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @baxterholmes

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