The effects of a four-game losing streak were wearing on the Celtics. They coughed up a 13-point second-half lead against the Pistons and a 21-point second-half cushion against the Grizzlies. They were pushed around by the Bulls and they allowed the Knicks to steal a tense game in the final moments.
And when those dispiriting results become common, it can be tough to remember a time when things were different, a time when things were better. So when the Pacers held a three-point lead in the final minutes at TD Garden on Wednesday night, the Celtics needed some self-affirmation.
Jae Crowder kept telling his teammates that they were going to win, and that they had to do it together. Marcus Smart kept telling his teammates that somebody, anybody, needed to make a defining play. Then that’s what they did, over and over and over again.
In the final 2 minutes, 32 seconds, the Celtics had four steals that led to dunks or layups, as they surged in front and held on for a 103-94 win.
“That was a video game,” guard Isaiah Thomas said of the wild finish. “I’ve definitely seen that on one of the video games I played. That was crazy.”
Coach Brad Stevens has made it clear that his team’s identity is its defense, and in the final minutes, that truth resurfaced. With the Celtics trailing 92-89, Crowder came up with a steal and coasted in for a dunk, pulling the Celtics with one point.
After the Pacers stretched their lead back to three, Amir Johnson pilfered the ball and soared in for a slam. And then with 1:32 left, Smart stepped into a passing lane and went the other way for a layup, giving the Celtics a 95-94 lead.
The Celtics had the ball with 1:10 left when Paul George took it away, but seconds later Crowder took it right back, surging the other way for a layup and making it 97-94 with 58.2 seconds left.
Over a stretch of just 1 minute, 34 seconds, the Celtics had taken the ball from the Pacers four times and gotten fast-break baskets after each swipe.
“We needed it,” Smart said. “Everybody was out there talking, ‘We need this game. We can’t lose this game. Somebody’s got to make a play.’ And four different guys made four different plays [in] under a minute and a half.”
The Pacers were scoreless over the game’s final two minutes, and the Celtics closed the game with a 12-0 run and had their victory. When the final seconds ticked away, there was a palpable sense of relief, both in the Garden crowd and on the Celtics’ bench.
“I thought the turnovers and forcing those turnovers were huge,” Stevens said. “And those guys, that’s what they do.”
As this season creeps toward its midway point, the Celtics have transformed from a team pushing for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference to a team attempting to find its way. This recent rut, which included six losses in seven games, two of which came against the lowly Lakers and Nets, ignited questions about this team’s potential and power.
But this night was offered new hope and served as a reminder that this team can still be dangerous.
“The last couple of games we’ve been losing late in the second half down the stretch in the fourth quarter,” Smart said. “Teams have been going off and scoring more than they should on us, so we just understood that we needed to bring that identity back to us, especially late in games.”
Thomas led the Celtics with 28 points and Crowder added 25. Johnson had 14 points and a season-high 18 rebounds.
“He’s played like that now for two or three weeks,” Stevens said of Johnson. “He’s really come on big-time when we need him to. It was good to see him play like that. He made huge plays in big moments.”
George had 23 points to lead the Pacers, who made just 5 of 30 3-point attempts (16.7 percent). But they will mostly remember this game for their miscues during the night’s final stretch.
“All pick-6s too,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said, comparing the Celtics’ steal spree to interceptions that are returned for touchdowns. “That’s unrecoverable. That was the game. Got to give [the Celtics] credit for getting up and pressuring us. That’s what they do.”
For the Celtics, the start did little to create optimism after their recent stumbles. Just over two minutes into the game, Boston had missed its first three shots and committed three turnovers, and the Pacers had an 8-0 lead. Stevens called timeout, and there was some grumbling in the crowd.
But this time, Boston was able to find its rhythm before the deficit swelled. Over a stretch of 1 minute, 42 seconds, Thomas drilled a pair of 3-pointers and Crowder added one, igniting a relentless 22-2 Celtics run.
One night after allowing 120 points to the Knicks, the defense appeared to have some extra juice early. Boston forced a pair of shot-clock violations and made the Pacers settle for long, difficult jump-shots often.
With 1.7 seconds left before halftime, Thomas took an inbounds pass from Crowder and converted a layup as he was fouled. The ensuing free throw gave the Celtics a 57-49 lead at the break.
But the Pacers did not fade. With 7:53 left in the third quarter, George retrieved the ball after it had been knocked into the backcourt, and with the shot clock running down he blitzed forward and drilled a 30-foot 3-pointer, pulling the Pacers within 63-61. With 6:53 left in the game, a layup by George Hill gave the Pacers their first lead since the opening quarter, 84-82. But the Celtics closed with a memorable defensive surge, and now they are hopeful that those moments of defensive dominance become more frequent.
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.