INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana Pacers were in the dumps, losers of four straight.
Brad Stevens knew what that meant — that the Pacers would be on a warpath Tuesday, with the Celtics in the crosshairs.
“They’re going to play great tonight,” the rookie Celtics coach predicted before the teams tipped off at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
But Stevens wanted the Eastern Conference-leading Pacers’ best shot, because he was curious about where his own team stood after winning two straight games.
“We want to see where we’re going,” Stevens said.
The Celtics ended up going home with a 94-83 loss, but it was a more respectable defeat than in December, when the Pacers rolled the Celtics by 27.
“We played a lot better than the last time we were here, that’s for sure,” Stevens said.
Against a towering frontline, which featured 7-foot-2-inch Roy Hibbert and the Pacers’ debut of 7-footer Andrew Bynum, the Celtics stood tall.
They scored more points in the paint, 38-36, and held a shocking 20-8 edge in offensive rebounds, which led to a 25-8 advantage in second-chance points.
“Everything went great except the ball going in the basket,” Stevens said.
Oh, right. That.
The Celtics shot an unsightly 35.2 percent while the Pacers shot 54.8 percent.
The Pacers (47-17) won their first season-series sweep over the Celtics since the 1998-99 season and their first four-game sweep since the 1997-98 season.
The Celtics (22-42) have also lost five straight road games. Why the road woes?
“I don’t know,” said Kris Humphries, who had 15 points and nine rebounds. “If you find out, let me know.”
The Celtics also secured their first sub-.500 season since 2006-07 (24-58).
Even if they win their remaining 18 games, they will finish with a record of 40-42.
But the Celtics were rather upbeat Tuesday, because they gave themselves a shot.
“This was a winnable game for us,” said Jeff Green, who shot 3 of 16. “We were right there. We were right there.”
After trailing by as much as 15, the Celtics cut the Pacers’ lead to 77-76 on a layup by Jared Sullinger with 6:44 left in the fourth quarter.
The Pacers responded with a 6-0 run, and the Celtics didn’t challenge again.
“We fought pretty hard,” said Rajon Rondo, who had 8 points and eight assists in a season-high 41 minutes. “I think we ran out of gas.”
Rondo, the Celtics’ captain and point guard, also felt like he could have done more after shooting 4 of 15 from the floor.
“I wasn’t as effective as I wanted to be,” he said. “I think I still could’ve dominated the game better. I’ve got to take this on myself as far as a loss.
“I could’ve done a lot more intangibles out there. I tried to get to the [free-throw] line; I came up short. But like I said, give my teammates a lot of credit. We fought tonight, but we didn’t get the victory.”
Stevens remained optimistic.
“We’re getting better, there’s no doubt about it,” he said. “Obviously you’ve got that great balancing thing of, our record is not very good, but especially in the last couple of weeks, with the exception of the Golden State game, I think we’ve done some good things at times.”
Rondo can also see strides.
“Yeah, I think even tonight, we didn’t make shots, but we still played better defense,” Rondo said. “Usually when we don’t make shots, we put our heads down and give up 100-plus points. But tonight, we kept fighting. We got stops when we needed to. We made a short run, but we just didn’t have enough.”
Bynum gave the Pacers a boost in his first game since Dec. 26, when he played with Cleveland. He scored 4 points and grabbed FIVE rebounds in his first four minutes on the court.
“Bynum came in and kind of changed the game for them a little bit,” said Humphries, “but I don’t think Hibbert did very much.”
Hibbert had 6 points and nine rebounds in 32 minutes.
Bynum, however, finished with 8 points and 10 rebounds in 15 minutes.
“I couldn’t do anything wrong today,” Bynum said.
David West led the Pacers with 24 points. Paul George scored a quiet 12.
For the Celtics, it boiled down to missed shots — and they were 3 of 19 from 3-point range.
Green missed nine of his first 11 shots, Kelly Olynyk shot 1 for 9, Jerryd Bayless 1 for 6.
Credit is owed to the Pacers, who didn’t give the Celtics any easy looks.
“I missed a ton of shots,” Rondo said. “They were contested, most of them.”
The Celtics did crash the offensive boards, which helped them stay in the game.
Sullinger had a team-high seven offensive rebounds. He came off the bench to lead the Celtics with 17 points, including 11 in the fourth quarter.
But it will go into the record books as a loss, securing a losing season for the 2013-14 Celtics.
The 2014 NBA draft lottery is May 20, in case you were wondering.Baxter Holmes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BaxterHolmes.