Pacers continue to teeter around .500

Teams don’t want to lose their final game before Christmas break, assuming they have Christmas off. That’s why big-time colleges typically schedule their final cupcake game before the conference season picks up. It doesn’t matter the level — the feeling is the same.

The Pacers failed in that department against a better team Thursday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. It was a Hickory Night, where the team honored Damon Bailey. And while the Pacers had the upper hand in three quarters, they were buried in too deep of hole in the second frame and wound up losing, 109-102.

And with that, back down their teeter-totter of a season goes, just below .500 at 15-16 through 31 games.

Indiana legend Damon Bailey was celebrated at halftime.

It was not just a good, but an outstanding first period for the Pacers. They shot 56 percent with a balanced attack, scoring 10 points in the paint and another 11 at the free throw line. Paul George scored 11 of his 19 as the Pacers were ahead by nine.

But that lead, their largest of the game, wouldn’t last long. The Celtics, who improved to 17-12 on the season, scored 17 unanswered to begin the second quarter as the Pacers missed their first eight field goals.

By the end of the half  — and a quarter they went 3-for-21 and scored nine points, the lowest of any period this season — the Pacers’ nine-point advantage far too quickly became an 11-point deficit.

“We just wasn’t in a groove; we was in a funk,” said George, who finished with 19 points, eight rebounds, and five assists. “They did a great job of holding and playing physical on us. The officiating let them get away with a lot of stuff. It made it tough for us. Regardless, we have to be stronger as a team. I’ll take credit on that for not getting us ready.

“Coach gave us that game plan that they were going to hold, grab, and play physical. I should’ve been the one to retaliate on that … by being just as physical.”

George after visually displaying his dissatisfaction with a call in the fourth quarter, received his third technical foul of the season.

Several players noted the scratching and clawing feel to the game. That’s the reputation Boston now has, in addition to playing hard every minute.

Indy native Brad Stevens had a successful season in Indy, winning both games for the first time since the 2007-08 season. In addition, the Celtics are feeling good having won their fourth consecutive game, including a very successful three-game road trip.

“Any way you slice it, tonight the Pacers came out in the first quarter a little strong,” said Celtics veteran Al Horford (8 points, 11 rebounds). “We were able to hang in there, and to be able to walk away 3-0 is a great road trip.”

“It’s going to beat any team when you have 19 turnovers, only 20 assists,” said Pacers coach Nate McMillan.” If you give them 19 extra bullets, it’s going to be a tough night.”

The Pacers now have three days between games and a couple of practices before Christmas.

C.J. Miles, who had it going all game with 19 points on 7-of-13 shooting, says he doesn’t have the answers to their problems but was reflective in the perspective he wants the team to take.

“I say it all the time: If I had the answers [to our problems], I’d tell everybody [in here],” he said with a big grin.

“You still look around sometimes and it looks like we don’t enjoy the game enough. We see big plays made and you see guys like [exhales], instead of getting hyped about it, getting excited about it. I think we got to get back to being passionate and remembering that we got one of the best jobs in the world. We play basketball for a living.”

Now 31 games in and the Pacers’ offense is still sputtering. Teague goes for a season-high 31 and four other players reach double figures and they lose? That can’t happen.

“Out identity is inconsistent,” George said candidly. “We’ve yet to spread for the pack, we’ve yet to string some (wins) together.”

The Pacers haven’t won or lost more than two consecutive games all season. They’re teeter-tottering at .500. Win a game here, lose two there, then respond with a win. Nothing streaky either way. And that’s got to change.

From coach McMillan’s perspective, he wants to see three things: Take care of the ball, win the free throw line, and control the boards.

“What we want now is what we wanted at the beginning of the season and what we’ll continue to work on is being solid,” McMillan said.

Sure, they’ve been solid at times but, again, it’s the consistency. It’s playing hard for an entire game. It’s having fun. It’s playing together.

George would like to see the team get back to its identity for the last half-dozen years of defense, confident that they have the personnel and experience to do so.

“The good teams, they win when they’re supposed to win and then they figure out how to win when they’re not supposed to win,” added Miles.

The 15-16 Pacers returned to game action in Chicago on Monday, playing three of their next five away from Indy. They badly need to build some kind of momentum and roll of a stretch of wins.

Their schedule is favorable over the next nine games with the Bulls, who they play in Chicago and in Indy, as the only quality opponent that they will face. Potential victories over Washington, Orlando, Brooklyn, New York, Denver, and New Orleans are right there for the taking.

Indiana is almost 38 percent through its season. It’s time for a run. The training wheels come off at the end of the calendar year.

“We are all disappointed right now,” said point guard Jeff Teague, who statistically had his best game with the team. He had a game-high 31 points, 8 assists, and 5 rebounds in over 35 minutes.

“This is a good group of guys. We like each other and we are for each other. We know we are better than our record shows. We keep saying it but we just need to go out and show it.”

Notes: Monta Ellis is expected out for at least another two weeks due to a groin strain, which has caused him to miss the last six games. Rodney Stuckey (hamstring strain) could return as soon as Monday.

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