INDIANAPOLIS - Back-to-back championships is still a realistic goal for the Celtics. But back-to-back game situations might not be a team strength this season, judging by a 95-79 loss to the Indiana Pacers last night.
The Celtics had an 8-0 record in the second of consecutive night games last season. Following a 96-80 win over Chicago at TD Banknorth Garden Boston Friday, though, the Celtics displayed the fatigue of a late arrival. They were also victims of some aggressive and tactically sound defending by the Pacers, who were playing their home opener.
"We don't have to worry about that streak anymore," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "We started off bad. We were bad all game, sloppy plays, missed free throws.
"I don't know if it was them or us, but let's give it to them. They just played so much harder than us and that's rare for us. They really moved the ball, which we didn't do, and that's rare for us.
"One thing we're going to learn is we can't come out flat, because we are going to get every team's best. And, if we come out flat, we are going to get our butts whipped, and that's what happened."
There were signs early on this was not going to be the Celtics' night.
The Celtics went 3:56 of the opening quarter without a field goal, Indiana going on a 19-6 run extending into the second quarter, which helped the hosts take a 48-41 halftime lead.
The third quarter symbolized the Celtics' performance - they committed seven turnovers and were 3 for 9 at the foul line.
"We just didn't play well, in any aspect of the game," Rivers said. "It was amazing, we were down 9, 10, it was a miracle. We didn't deserve to win that game. We weren't going to make a run, the way we were playing, it was just not possible."
The Celtics actually demonstrated a commitment to defense, Indiana star Danny Granger (game-high 20 points) losing two front teeth as a result. But the Pacers' defending, and the Celtics' lack of shooting accuracy (27 for 78, 34.6 percent) and propensity for committing traveling violations were decisive.
Things continued to degenerate in the final quarter. Indiana would score what turned out to be the clinching points as Paul Pierce goaltended Granger's drive, giving the Pacers an 81-65 lead with 7:50 remaining.
The Celtics' shooting futility was symbolized by a possession midway through the quarter. Pierce and Eddie House missed open 3-pointers and T.J. Ford transitioned for a layup and an 85-65 edge with 5:58 remaining.
Kevin Garnett (18 points, 14 rebounds - both team highs) was the only consistent offensive threat for the Celtics, though he committed six turnovers (four traveling). Pierce (15 points) was 3 for 15 from the field and 7 for 12 at the foul line.
"We didn't have the right focus," Celtic guard Rajon Rondo said. "There's no way we should ever get beat by that many points. It's all focus. They don't press, they aren't a press team, to where we should turn the ball over. They are a help defensive team but we didn't make the right play and forced the shot when we should have got a better look.
"We let our guard down. We were down 8, 10, 14 points, and never cut into the lead. We were in that situation a lot of times last year and never let it slip away like that. We never got beat like that since we've been together."
The game tipped off at 7:15 p.m., about 15 hours after the Celtics checked in at their hotel.
"It was a combination of a lot of things," said Pierce of the team's worst regular-season defeat since a 110-92 loss to Utah March 14. "You can't point a finger at one thing - free throw shooting, turnovers, lack of defense. We've got to expect every team's best, especially on the road, their home opener.
"We really got caught up in yelling at the referees, didn't keep our composure. Indiana played well defensively, but we had a lot of looks, they just didn't fall for us. We just have to get in the gym and focus on the next three days. We can't go in to Houston [Tuesday] and play like this."