INDIANAPOLIS — For about 44 minutes, Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley were essentially spectators, watching their teammates grind against a physical and speedy Indiana team as coach Brad Stevens searched for combinations to compensate for their shoddy offensive showing.
With the Celtics holding a precarious 2-point lead in the final five minutes, the duo reappeared to save the day with clutch baskets, sparkling defensive plays, and key free throws.
Thomas and Bradley scored Boston’s final 16 points as the shorthanded Celtics earned a solid road win against the shorthanded Pacers, 105-99, at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Thomas finished with 23 points — 12 in the fourth quarter — on 4-for-13 shooting, but he hit consecutive baskets in the fourth to help the Celtics retain the lead. Bradley added 13 points on 5-for-11 shooting, including a pair of hoops to extend the lead to 6 with 2:10 left.
It was a difficult night for Thomas, who was playing with a sprained left middle finger that required X-rays after the game. They were negative, but there was major swelling in the finger. He will go on.
“I tried [to shoot] but I couldn’t feel the ball,” he said. “I didn’t shoot it as good and as much as I usually do. In the next couple days, I’ll try to figure out what I can do to adjust my shot and get comfortable.”
The Celtics received 16 points from the rejuvenated Kelly Olynyk. Amir Johnson added 14 with nine rebounds as the Celtics outrebounded Indiana, 47-40, despite allowing 24 second-chance points. It was just the third time in nine games the Celtics have outrebounded an opponent.
And the defense held an Indiana team without All-Star Paul George (sprained left ankle) to 36.5 percent shooting in the final three quarters after yielding 31 points in the opening period. The Pacers missed 11 of 18 shots in the final period, including 8 of 9 by Jeff Teague and C.J. Miles.
Without George, the Pacers went small with the speedy trio of Teague, Monta Ellis, and Aaron Brooks. They took turns trying to gash the Celtics’ defense but were a combined 12 for 33.
“We did a better job on the glass but we still have to get a lot better,” Stevens said. “We can’t have long stretches of them scoring on us the way they did at the start. I thought after a statement like the first half, [we] were pretty good defensively.
“You have to pay attention to those guys as they are going downhill.We did so with active hands and with help.”
The Celtics led by 3 at halftime but the Pacers countered with a 22-11 run to begin the third quarter before third-year forward James Young made perhaps his biggest impact as a Celtic. He scored 8 of Boston’s final 20 points of the period, including a side-pocket 3-pointer with 2.2 left to give the Celtics the lead for good at 79-76.
Marcus Smart took over to begin the fourth period with 5 consecutive points as the Celtics extended their lead to 84-76 at the 10:13 mark. They spent the rest of the fourth staving off Indiana rallies, stopping runs with strong defense.
Stevens dug deep into his bench for combinations with Thomas and Bradley struggling, using 10 players for key minutes.
“I’m around them every day and I think I know what they bring to the table,” Stevens said of his reserves. “Again, I think James had a couple of moments in the preseason where I thought that he learned from that he got better at defensively [on Saturday]. I thought he was extremely active. He’s always been a shooter and a mover.”
Yet, with the Celtics clinging to a single-digit lead during the entire fourth quarter, Thomas and Bradley, despite their off nights, decided to secure the win with big plays.
Bradley made a stirring steal of Myles Turner near the sideline and saved the ball to Smart, who passed it to a streaking Thomas for a layup for a 101-94 lead with one minute left. The ball never touched the floor.
“Just every assist we’re able to make as a team we’re happy because that’s Celtic basketball,” Bradley said. “That puts a smile on my face. There was a few possessions where we got Kelly the ball and we were just moving the ball to the open guy. That’s the way we were supposed to play.
“I feel like [closing] is our role, that’s what [Isaiah and I] are supposed to do. We actually were talking to each other in the fourth quarter saying we need to close this game out. And it was going to have to come from us.”
The matchup with Teague completely frustrated Thomas, who picked up two early fouls on Teague postups and then a third in the second period trying to stop a Thaddeus Young drive. He managed just three free throws in the second quarter, and matters looked bleak when the Pacers went on a 7-0 run to open up a 45-35 lead with 3:33 left in the half.
Saddled in foul trouble, Thomas was 1-for-7 shooting with 11 points through three quarters and a minus-10 despite the Celtics leading by 3 points.
“I enjoy going up against [Teague]; he’s a hell of a guard and he’s got a lot of talent,” Thomas said. “I love competing against the best. I was a little timid on both ends but in the second half I just tried to play my game and will my team to a win.”