7 takeaways as slumping Celtics rally from 30-point deficit but drop 3rd straight to Pacers

"We’ve had a tough stretch every year since I’ve been in the NBA, and this is no different."

Celtics Pacers
Jayson Tatum scored 41 points but the Celtics fell to the Pacers on Wednesday. Photo by: Barry Chin/Globe Staff

The Celtics continued their recent slide on Wednesday, falling to the Pacers 117-112 despite a furious second-half rally and 41 points from Jayson Tatum.

Here are the takeaways.

1. Hold your applause for the Celtics’ second-half rally, and consider shelving your rage at the officials. Sure, the Celtics played significantly better in the final 24 minutes, and the referees themselves admitted they missed a potential flagrant foul committed by Jalen Smith against Tatum (which turned into two Pacer free throws on the other end).

But to paraphrase a famous tweet by Weird Twitter legend @dril: When a team falls behind by 30 points and rallies, you do not, under any circumstances, “gotta hand it to them.”


“That’s the problem with digging yourself such a hole,” Malcolm Brogdon said after the game. “You’re making a run, you’re down 30, you get down nine or 10, but the likelihood of them missing 10, 15 shots in a row is low. They are going to make some shots, and some of them end up being daggers in the last couple of minutes.”

The Celtics experienced that frustration over and over and over. For example:

– After the Celtics outscored the Pacers 40-23 for the first 11:50 of the third quarter and closed their deficit to 11, Sam Hauser saved the ball back in bounds … but it found its way to Pacers guard Chris Duarte, who buried a 3-pointer.

– Seconds later, after Tatum drew a foul and made a pair of free throws, Duarte banked in a heavily contested heave at the buzzer that pushed Indiana’s lead back to 15.

– After Robert Williams annihilated an Aaron Nesmith layup off the glass and jump-started a fast break, both Payton Pritchard and Jaylen Brown missed at the rim, and Tyrese Haliburton buried a triple that pushed the Pacers’ lead back to 10 with four minutes remaining.

– After the Celtics cut the lead to five with just under three minutes remaining, they shut the Pacers down for nearly an entire shot clock, but Haliburton drilled another 3 — this one contested and deep as the shot clock wound down.


A 20-point rally is fairly common at this point, but to rally from a 30-point deficit, you need to be both lucky and good. The Celtics were good in the second half, but the fact that they needed luck on their side as well makes Wednesday’s final result feel appropriate.

2. The Pacers ended the first quarter on a game-breaking 37-11 run, spurred by their long-range shooting.

Buddy Hield made the first 3-pointer. When the Celtics emphasized Hield on the next possession, Haliburton hit his first three. As Celtics defenders scrambled throughout the first half, the Pacers got 3-pointers from Hield, Haliburton, Duarte, Myles Turner, and Jalen Smith.

“We just didn’t play with a great sense of urgency, didn’t play with an awareness and didn’t play with a sense of detail,” Joe Mazzulla told reporters.

The Pacers shot 18-for-39 from 3-point range as a team (46.2 percent). It’s a credit to the Celtics that they managed to rally despite the Pacers’ 8-for-18 (44.4 percent) shooting in the second half.

3. Tatum absolutely annihilated his old teammate Nesmith with a dunk in transition as the Celtics tried to rally in the second half.

Tatum appeared to have something to say to Nesmith as well. The Celtics were deeply frustrated by that point, and Nesmith didn’t make matters easier with his hustle plays.


For Nesmith, however, the homecoming was largely positive. He may have gotten dunked on, but he also started and scored 15 points on 6-for-13 shooting as part of a winning effort against his old team.

“It’s fun being back here competing against those guys, and they really taught me a lot, taught me how to play in this league,” he told reporters. “So it was a lot of fun being able to take what I learned from them and use it against them.”

Before the game, Pacers coach Rick Carlisle praised Nesmith enthusiastically.

“We just love Aaron’s competitiveness, his joy to compete, his overall positivity all the time, and that’s not to mention his skill,” Carlisle said. “He shoots it. He drives it. He’s beyond coachable. He’s a dream to work with just in terms of every day. Every day you come in there, he’s just raring to go and he’s a sponge.”

The Celtics used Nesmith and a first-round pick to acquire Malcolm Brogdon, so they presumably regret nothing. But if Danny Ainge wants a little credit for his work during the 2020 NBA Draft, Nesmith — who was the No. 14 pick — looks much more like a rotation player in Indiana.

Ainge still should have kept Desmond Bane.

4. Jaylen Brown scored just 19 points on 8-for-23 shooting, and he had several key misses down the stretch. The worst ones may have been a wide open corner three with 7:24 remaining that barely grazed iron and would have cut the lead to five, as well as a layup with 2:25 remaining which would have cut the lead to six.


Meanwhile, Brown’s 19-point outing broke a run of 21 consecutive games with 20 or more points, which was the longest such streak in the NBA.

5. The Celtics wasted an excellent performance from Tatum, who finished shooting 13-for-25 from the field and 11-for-13 from the free-throw line. After taking a night off, Tatum appeared re-invigorated.

6. Robert Williams was crucial to the comeback as well, pulling down seven offensive rebounds, including three in the fourth quarter as the comeback attempt reached a fever pitch.

“He definitely brought a different energy for us and he’s continuing to get better,” Mazzulla said. “So I’m very happy where he’s at.”

Williams is yet to start a game, despite repeatedly being declared healthy after games. He appeared to be involved in a few miscues in the first half, but his two-way impact on the second half was undeniable.

So far this season, the Celtics have played their 2021-22 starting lineup of Marcus Smart, Tatum, Brown, Williams and Horford together for just two possessions, per Cleaning the Glass. That group outscored opponents by 24.3 points per 100 possessions last year, which prompts one to ask how much longer Williams remains out of the starting lineup, especially as Derrick White continues to struggle (0-for-12 from three in his last three games).

7. The Celtics have now lost three straight games and five of their last six as the Eastern Conference surges around them. The Cavaliers, Nets, Knicks and 76ers have all been red-hot recently, and the Bucks have taken over first place in the conference. Meanwhile, the C’s no longer have the league’s best net rating (behind the Cavaliers), according to the NBA’s stats.


The Celtics are struggling, but they are probably in the middle of a regression to the mean, not a plummet to the bottom. If you assume that regression will level out, they currently have a +6.8 net rating per Cleaning the Glass (which filters out garbage stats, and still has the Celtics first overall). According to Cleaning the Glass, the Celtics have the net rating of a team on pace to win 57.5 games. Unless you think the Celtics will missing shots at this rate — 31.8 percent from deep over the last 10 games — this recent tough stretch is likely to turn around.

“I think we just need a win,” Tatum said. “We have fun together off the court. We bond. This is a close group. We’re just having a tough stretch. We’ve had a tough stretch every year since I’ve been in the NBA, and this is no different. We’ve got to figure it out. We’ve got to regroup. We’ve got to get back on track, essentially.”

Still, the Celtics are now 0-3 on a home stretch with a road-heavy January looming. Friday’s game against the Timberwolves is a pretty important time to start winning again.


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