As the Pacers sat in their locker room following their game against the Celtics on Wednesday, word began to spread about the Nets’ win over the Warriors in which Brooklyn raced to a 40-point halftime lead.
The Indiana players appeared amazed as they asked for details about how that had happened. But it shouldn’t have been all that surprising, because their start against the Celtics was nearly as thorough.
The Pacers roared to a 28-point halftime lead that led to the Celtics being booed off the court, a jarring response to a team that has spent most of this season atop the NBA.
The Celtics crafted a spirited comeback, as teams facing massive deficits tend to do. But the Pacers’ young star, Tyrese Haliburton, answered when he needed to, and Indiana held on for a 117-112 victory.
“We’ve got to learn how to win again,” Celtics forward Jayson Tatum said. “I think it’s not as simple as that, but we’ve got to get back to having fun. I think we’re playing a little timid, a little tight.”
This is the Celtics’ third loss in a row — all at home — and their fifth in six games, pushing them back into a collection of teams harboring championship dreams as the season approaches its midway point.
A year ago, now-suspended Celtics coach Ime Udoka probably would have blasted his team for its forgettable effort in the first half Wednesday. Interim coach Joe Mazzulla stopped short of that. He acknowledged that the lethargic start was unacceptable, but he found encouraging signs in the rally.
“I’m not really concerned about that ... it’s the first that we’ve had where we were really outplayed from an effort standpoint,” Mazzulla said. “That would be more concerning if we didn’t play a completely different style in the second half. We just have a choice to make: What team do we want to be, the team we were in the first half, or the second?”
Tatum had 41 points to lead the Celtics. Jaylen Brown made just 8 of 23 shots for 19 points and had four turnovers. The Celtics, who started this year with a historically dominant offense that was built around relentless 3-point shooting, had another tough night from beyond the arc, going 13 for 41.
The second-half comeback was sparked by effort plays, at least. The Celtics had 25 offensive rebounds and 32 second-chance points, both season highs. Robert Williams, playing in his third game since returning from offseason knee surgery, had seven offensive rebounds, several of which directly led to Celtics 3-pointers during their run.
Haliburton, who has emerged as a likely All-Star, had 33 points to lead the Pacers. Former Celtics wing Aaron Nesmith added 15 points and six rebounds.
“When it gets rolling and you start moving the ball and everybody’s making shots, it is contagious,” Nesmith said. “The basket gets wide open for everybody.”
The Celtics’ offense was a mess early. Brown committed a violation when he stepped on the end line before inbounding the ball. He and Tatum both kicked away other turnovers, and Grant Williams stepped on the sideline before taking a three.
The Pacers, meanwhile, left the Celtics searching for answers as they slid to the rim for easy backdoor cuts. They were crushing from long-range, too, hitting 8 of their first 11 attempts.
“We just didn’t play with a great sense of urgency, didn’t play with an awareness, and didn’t play with a sense of detail,” Mazzulla said.
A pair of Al Horford 3-pointers at the start of the third quarter gave Boston hope. The comeback was not instant instantly, but it was constant.
The Celtics pulled within 100-85 at the start of the fourth, and a pair of Tatum 3-pointers after offensive rebounds by Williams made it 106-99 with 6:10 left. The Pacers later used a quick 6-0 run to seemingly regain control, 117-106, with 2:09 remaining, but then they went scoreless for two minutes.
A steal and layup by Tatum that pulled Boston within 117-112 was followed by another steal with 14.4 seconds left. After a timeout, it appeared Tatum may have pulled the Celtics within two when he was fouled on a 3-pointer with 6.7 seconds left, but it was ruled a non-shooting foul. Mazzulla had a challenge, but he said the play was not reviewable.
“We’re disappointed in ourselves, but I don’t think there’s concern,” guard Malcolm Brogdon said. “I think we need a sense of urgency, and I think we’re starting to get that. I think that second half shows us we can have and play with a sense of urgency, and I think we will.”