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Pacers 97, Celtics 83

Celtics bow to Pacers

Miscues continue to get in the way

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / January 15, 2012
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INDIANAPOLIS - Truly, there are signs of progress. The Celtics are improving. They are getting into better shape. Paul Pierce is regaining his toughness and confidence. Kevin Garnett’s spinning jumper is falling.

Those things are paling in comparison to the mistakes, turnovers, botched plays, missed defensive assignments, and the stripped balls that used to draw foul calls that are now clean. In a way the Celtics are still in training camp, trying to work out the kinks, but they are being buried in the Eastern Conference during that process, and the results are ghastly.

The Celtics allowed Indiana to go on a 17-2 run between the first and second quarters and spent the final three quarters chasing in vain. They finally relented in the fourth quarter, unable to overtake the Indiana Pacers in a 97-83 decision at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

Pierce led the Celtics with 21 points, a massively encouraging sign considering his recent skid. But he also committed six turnovers. Garnett also tallied 21 points, but had his streaking layup snuffed out by Roy Hibbert, and had a ball ripped from his hands by Tyler Hansbrough under the basket, something unfathomable a few years ago.

Celtics coach Doc Rivers can pursue two directions with his team: continue to encourage, mix his rotations, and maintain belief that the Celtics will emerge as an Eastern Conference competitor, or begin the arduous task of replacing older with younger and become more critical of his team.

Rivers met with the players before last night’s game, telling them individually what he required from them to foster progress. He needs more low-post play from Garnett, better decision-making from Pierce, and more consistency from the bench.

There were flashes of those elements against Indiana, but not enough to prevail. The Pacers are probably one of the worst matchups for the Celtics because they are athletic, deep, and poised. The Celtics can no longer win with old veteran tricks or by reputation.

Pierce was rather upbeat after the game, walking around the lockout uttering, “Cry now, laugh later,’’ and maintaining confidence that the Celtics can return to their more successful ways. Pierce was 8-for-34 shooting in his previous three games, but finished 5 for 12 last night with a season-high 10 free throw attempts.

His game is still plagued by silly mistakes, forcing the action and, of course, fatigue after missing training camp with a bruised right heel.

“I’m a big contributor [to our struggles],’’ he said. “I had a lot of silly turnovers. I’ve got to do a better job of taking care of the ball, especially when the ball is going to be in my hands. I’m going to be asked to provide some offense for us, so I’ve got to do a better job.’’

The Pacers were so balanced that the Celtics stopped one leak - Paul George’s early scoring spurt - and watched another explode; Darren Collison’s 13 second-half points.

The Celtics lost control in the third quarter, when they wasted countless chances to draw to within a couple of possessions. In one sequence, Ray Allen missed a 3-pointer off a fast break that would have cut the lead to 6. Instead, the Pacers responded with a 9-0 run for a 78-60 lead with 1:43 left in the third.

Rivers knew his aging team had little chance to making a furious run on the second game of a back-to-back. So he decided to play rookie E’Twaun Moore - in front of at least 1,000 Purdue University alumni - the entire fourth quarter in an attempt to blend younger players into the rotation.

And the exhaustion was apparent. While the Celtics recorded a season-high 15 offensive rebounds, they allowed Indiana to pull down 20, including 14 in the second half. While Pierce and Garnett teamed for 42 points, the trio of Jermaine O’Neal, Allen, and Rajon Rondo were 6-for-24 shooting with 16 total points.

“In the third quarter we shot a lot of jump shots,’’ Rivers said. “I told them before the game back-to-back nights is not a jump-shot night.

“Where I was more disappointed is we didn’t take care of the ball against an athletic team that wants to run.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashburn14.

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