The NBA has a natural order, and it took over in the second half of the Celtics’ sixth consecutive loss on Friday night at TD Garden.
The rule of law in the NBA for most franchises, the ones not in geographically-desirable locales like Los Angeles and Miami, is that you have to be bad before you can be good. It’s mandatory. The Celtics and first-year coach Brad Stevens are living that right now, and it’s not fun or easy to accept.
Stevens and his team defied the hoops hierarchy for 24 glorious minutes against the Indiana Pacers, taking a 50-42 halftime lead. But in the end, reality — and natural order — came crashing down like the shots that clanked off the rim in the final 24 minutes.
The Celtics couldn’t hang with the Pacers, a team constructed to compete for a spot in the NBA Finals. Behind the Xenon headlight-bright brilliance of star Paul George (a lottery pick — No. 10 in 2010 — by the way, folks), who had 22 of his 27 points in the second half, the Pacers pulled away for a 97-82 victory.
As Stevens said, Indiana went to another level. That’s a level the Celtics’ elevator doesn’t go to. It’s a level Houston, San Antonio, and Indiana, the last three teams to vanquish the Green, can reach.
“The last three teams, they are what their record says they are,” said Stevens in Parcellian fashion.
And the Celtics are what their record (4-10) says they are — a lottery team in the making.
The first half amounted to fool’s gold for the Green.
They shot a sizzling 59 percent from the floor, led by Jordan Crawford, who hit all eight of his first-half shots, scoring 19 points. Crawford finished with 24.
All manner of shots went in for the Celtics, including a 31-footer from Crawford at the halftime buzzer that gave the Celtics an 8-point advantage on the Pacers, who entered at 10-1.
Hot shooting and 26 points in the paint made up for the fact the Celtics attempted just one free throw in the first half. That’s right, one lonely free throw. Crawford sank a technical foul free throw in the first quarter that was the result of a defensive three-second call on Indiana.
With a team possessing the small margin for error the Celtics have, not getting to the free throw line and relying on streak shooters like Crawford, who hit his first nine shots, singeing the nets amounted to pyrite on the parquet.
“I think so,” said Gerald Wallace. “I think not being aggressive kind of took away from us getting those calls late in the second half. I think we settled a lot for the jump shots. We didn’t attack the basket . . . and the turnovers, I think the biggest thing was the turnovers. We take away the turnovers, and we’re in a pretty good position to win this game tonight.”
In the third quarter, Indiana turned up its defense to boiling, and the Celtics were stripped of the lead and the basketball. Boston committed 11 of its 23 turnovers in a ghastly 12 minutes in which they surrendered the lead for good.
“That’s tough,” said Celtics forward Jared Sullinger, who submitted another solid performance against one of the NBA’s best big men, Indiana center Roy Hibbert. “We’ve just got to value the ball like gold, and understand that key turnovers can’t happen. They just can’t happen.”
The Celtics shot 3 of 13 from the field (23.1 percent) in the third quarter and were outscored in the paint, 14-0. Only Sullinger (13 points overall), a beacon of hope for Celtics fans, could provide any resistance in the paint.
Water reached its level for the Celtics shooters in the second half, and Boston was in the deep end against a Pacers defense that Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano would be proud to call his own.
The Pacers came in leading the NBA in both points allowed per game (87.2) and opponents field goal percentage (39.5 percent).
Many of the parishioners of the parquet headed into the November night when George Hill hit a floater off a Lance Stephenson steal to give the Pacers a 90-70 lead.
Stephenson had the most surreptitious triple-double I’ve ever seen — 10 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 assists. The only thing as stealthily silent was Jeff Green’s 20-point night, which should have come with closed-captioning.
It’s hard to watch the Celtics drop a half-dozen in a row and not think of the T-word, tanking. It is the subplot of the Celtics’ season.
But it’s also hard not to watch them and realize they’re a victim of the circumstances of professional basketball, not a lack of effort or a conscious effort to boost the odds of Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, or Julius Randle wearing Celtic green.
The NBA isn’t an effort league. It’s a talent league. Without Rajon Rondo, the Celtics have a dearth of difference-makers and playmakers.
To show you how different the Celtics are without Rondo, only once this year has a Celtic recorded double figures in assists. Crawford had 10 in a 120-105 victory over the Orlando Magic on Nov. 11.
The Celtics came into Friday night ranked 29th in the NBA in assists per game at 17.7.
A team that needs easy buckets isn’t creating them. They had 11 assists against the Pacers.
Nothing is going to be easy for the Celtics this season.
There will be glimpses and glimmers of great basketball, such as Friday night’s first half. But they’re fool’s gold.
The Celtics’ pot of gold lies in the 2014 NBA draft.