INDIANAPOLIS — Sometimes, amid all the twists and turns and runs and adjustments, a basketball game can be distilled down to one or two simple moments. For Kyrie Irving on Saturday, there was one he would love to have back. He shook his head in the locker room when he thought about it.
“I smoked the layup,” he said. “That’s what it comes down to.”
Irving is one of the game’s most daring and enchanting finishers at the rim. And in this case, he made a swift backdoor cut with 11.7 seconds left before Al Horford found him under the hoop.
A layup would have given Boston a 4-point lead and all but finished off the Pacers. But Irving caught it at a tough angle — slightly under the hoop — and then missed the layup as Indiana’s Cory Joseph attempted to block it. Pacers All-Star Victor Oladipo then hurried upcourt and drilled a 27-foot 3-pointer from the right arc that ultimately sent Indiana to a 102-101 win and snapped Boston’s four-game winning streak.
The Celtics tipped their hats to Oladipo for hitting a shot that stars hit. But Irving wished it had never reached that point. He wished he had another shot at that layup.
“It was just my body position,” he said. “That was fully my responsibility to get open and finish that shot, regardless of where the pass was. I rushed it. I felt like Cory Joseph was on my back, but I got my left hand on the backboard and as I did that, it just shorted. Instead of just finishing the play I put too much whatever on it, and just shorted it.”
Still, the Celtics had a chance to win after Oladipo’s big shot with 3.4 seconds left. Gordon Hayward came off the bench to throw a sideline inbounds pass, but his cross-court feed to Jayson Tatum in the post was knocked away by Oladipo and gathered by Thaddeus Young.
“We didn’t have any timeouts so I thought [Tatum] could seal off his man and then maybe catch it and shoot it,” Hayward said. “And that’s all that happened . . . I’ve got to make a better read on that.”
The Celtics this season have mostly continued their run of finishing strong in taut games. Of their six wins, four had come by 2, 3, 4 and 6-point margins. While that is encouraging, it can also be dangerous.
Or, as Horford put it: “There’s some games early this season that have worked in our favor, but we’re living on the edge a little too much. So maybe this will wake us up as a group and understand that we need to be better. We shouldn’t rely on that last minute of the game, the last seconds of the game to turn the fate.”
Marcus Morris continued his scorching offensive start, coming off the bench to score a team-high 23 points on 9-of-13 shooting for the Celtics. But he did not have quite enough help.
Irving was mostly subdued for the first three quarters, partly by the Pacers’ swarming defense and partly by his own hiccups. The Pacers consistently looked to attack Irving in the post with the 6-foot-8-inch, 216-pound Bojan Bogdanovic when Irving switched onto him after screens.
Irving collected three first-half fouls. Usually, coach Brad Stevens does not react to foul trouble, but in this case, he saw the Pacers were continuing to go at Irving, hoping to draw his fourth, so he was taken out and played just 11 first-half minutes.
“The challenge of guarding Bogdanovic in the post, I should have just guarded him straight up and just made him finish,” Irving said. “He’s not necessarily a post-up threat the way I was treating him. I just wasn’t focused on those plays and just conceded to giving up a foul. So I’ve just got to be better on that end.”
At the start of the fourth quarter Irving had attempted just six shots. But it does not take him long to find a rhythm, and for a time it appeared he would rescue the Celtics in this one.
He made his last four 3-point tries, including two in the final 68 seconds of the game. The second one gave Boston a 101-97 lead with just 38.7 seconds remaining. But Boston would not score again.
“I thought [Indiana] battled and played well and hit the shots they needed to,” Hayward said. “But we can do better.”
One game after setting single-game franchise records by making 24 of 55 3-pointers, the Celtics continued to fire away from long range, hitting 19 of 46 attempts, tying the second highest number of made 3-pointers in team history.
Oladipo finished with 24 points and 12 rebounds to lead Indiana, and Tyreke Evans came off the bench to score 17 points.