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Pacers 103, Celtics 98

Suddenly, things aren’t quite so rosy for Celtics

Pacers forward Myles Turner (33) found some space away from Celtics forward Amir Johnson to shoot during the first half.Michael Conroy/Associated press
Pacers103
Celtics98

INDIANAPOLIS — When they are whole, the Celtics are a handful. They are a team capable of throwing various lineups at an opponent and challenging them to untangle the havoc they create. They are deep and they are relentless.

But right now, the Celtics are not whole. Forward Jae Crowder, arguably the most valuable player on this team, was back in Boston nursing a high ankle sprain when his teammates faced the Pacers on Tuesday. Kelly Olynyk, the 7-footer with the feathery 3-point touch, was with the team in Indianapolis, but after testing his sprained shoulder in a vigorous pregame workout it was decided he would sit, too.

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So Celtics coach Brad Stevens was left to tinker and tweak. He was left to plug one hole while hoping not to create new ones. And against a solid team like the Pacers the patchwork approach, even if necessary, can be dangerous.

After the Celtics lingered for 3½ quarters, Indiana used a late rally to grab a 103-98 win.

“You really notice when Jae’s not playing; his presence on defense, him knocking down shots,” Celtics rookie Terry Rozier said. “But the reality is we’ve got to get it done without him.”

Stevens pointed out that it is difficult to beat the Pacers here even when his team is at full strength, so this close loss while shorthanded was not especially alarming on its own.

“What I’m discouraged by is we could play with better purpose and give ourselves a better chance late,” Stevens said. “You’re going to give up some points because of size at times, but we can get a little bit better playing the way we play with the guys that we play.”

This was Boston’s second loss in a row, and there is a growing sense that what once appeared to be a relatively smooth ride to the postseason will now find more potholes.

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With 15 games left, the Celtics are tied for third place with the Heat, one game ahead of the Hawks, and 1½ games ahead of the Hornets. And on Wednesday night, the mighty Oklahoma City Thunder will rush into TD Garden. It is not time to panic, but it is time to look over a shoulder to see what is lurking.

Isaiah Thomas had 21 points and eight assists to lead the Celtics on Tuesday and Jonas Jerebko added a season-high 17 points. Marcus Smart started in place of Crowder and had 12 points but made just 1 of 8 three-point attempts. The Celtics shot 38.3 percent from the field overall and were 8 of 32 on 3-pointers.

Video: Isaiah Thomas third-quarter assist

On Monday, Stevens pulled aside the team’s young players, who have been used sparingly this season, and said they must all be ready to step in and step up. He said sometimes his decisions would be dictated by matchups, but he assured them that at least one of them would be used every game while the Celtics are undermanned.

And sure enough, there was Rozier checking in late in the first quarter, and there was forward Coty Clarke, who was signed to a 10-day contract March 7, checking in during the second and drilling a 3-pointer.

Video: Coty Clarke 3-pointer

There was a sense that Stevens was trying a bit of everything in this game, looking for a combination that might stick, or even just an unexpected player to catch fire.

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With the starters mostly scuffling in the first half, Jerebko gave Boston a lift. He hit a 3-pointer and scored twice inside during one 7-point burst and finished the half with 11 points. Thomas was held to just 2 points in before the break, though, as the Celtics went to halftime trailing 43-39.

“I guess their game plan might have been to just pack the paint and let [us] shoot,” Thomas said. “We were trying to drive in the first half and getting ourselves into a lot of trouble, because we were driving into another one of their players.”

Thomas found his rhythm in the third quarter, scoring 16 points. On one play, he shot a 3-pointer, chased after it, and acrobatically caught the miss in midair as he was fouled on a putback.

Two free throws by Evan Turner gave the Celtics a 77-76 lead with 8:05 left in the game. But Indiana seized control with a 15-5 run. With 2:14 remaining Paul George hit a 3-pointer from the left corner, and, on his team’s next possession, soared in for a dunk when the Celtics failed to account for him on the baseline, making it 93-83.

Indiana gave the Celtics one last gasp by missing four consecutive free throws in the final minute. But with 21.9 seconds left Jared Sullinger missed a 3-pointer that could have sliced the deficit to 3 points.

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“Whenever you play against size like this, you have to make shots,” Stevens said. “If you don’t make shots, you’re in trouble. If you’re unable to stretch the floor, you’re in trouble.

“We’ll have to make more shots. We’ll have to try to make better shots late than we got, and try to hold our ground a little bit better than we did.”

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Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.