Not unexpectedly, the Boston Celtics looked a bit out of sync while playing their first game of the 2015-16 season without the services of swingman Jae Crowder. A painful offensive lull in the first half combined with a brief loss of composure in the fourth quarter added up to a 103-98 loss to the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
The Celtics have lost consecutive games for the first time since Jan. 20-22 and are now tied with the Miami Heat for the No. 3 playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Boston owns the head-to-head tie-breaker with 15 games remaining in the regular season.
Playing without Crowder, who suffered a high ankle sprain in Friday's loss to the Houston Rockets, the Celtics shuffled Marcus Smart into the starting lineup. Smart held his own defensively while essentially starting at the small forward position, though Avery Bradley took some turns on Paul George, especially early in the second half. Smart's individual shooting woes -- 4-of-12 overall, 1-of-8 beyond the 3-point arc -- highlighted Boston's offensive struggles on a night in which the team shot 38.3 percent overall.
In 17 minutes of floor time, Boston's starters performed well, most notably posting an 84.2 defensive rating and finishing at plus-6 overall in plus/minus. Trouble lied with a second unit that lacked chemistry while integrating new faces. Rookies Terry Rozier and Coty Clarke (who hit a 3-pointer in his NBA debut) had their individual moments, as did backup swingman Jonas Jerebko (7-of-12 shooting, season-high 17 points). But the reserve unit of Rozier, Evan Turner, Jerebko, Tyler Zeller and starter Bradley shot just 23.5 percent (4-of-17) in eight minutes of floor time (the most playing time for any five-man lineup outside Boston's starters) and was minus-5 overall.
The Celtics endured a cringe-worthy five-minute stretch spanning into the second quarter when they simply couldn't buy a bucket. Boston owned a 20-13 lead with 3:10 to play in the first period, but didn't score again until nearly two minutes into the second quarter after Indiana had rallied to take a four-point lead. The sequence featured nine missed shots by Boston and a pair of turnovers.
Even still, Tuesday's tilt was a one-possession game with under five minutes to play in the fourth quarter before the wheels came off a bit for Boston during a two-minute stretch in which Indiana pushed its lead to double digits.
Some pains were expected as Boston adjusted to not having Crowder, maybe the team's best two-way player this season and someone who logs 32 minutes per game. Rozier, with solid cameos in each of the past two outings, and Boston's younger players must settle in and carve out their roles.
But what Tuesday's game emphasized was how much the Celtics need Kelly Olynyk. The Canadian 7-footer, shelved for more than a month by a separated shoulder, had been hoping to return Tuesday. Instead, he missed his 12th straight game, as he simply wasn't comfortable enough to engage in game action.
Olynyk remains day-to-day and his offensive abilities -- at least once he shakes some initial rust -- should help Boston's reserves avoid the sort of lulls that occurred Tuesday. It will also allow Stevens to be more judicious with deploying his other big men, including Zeller, who had a rough night in his native Indiana when bunnies simply didn't drop.
Tuesday's game was a reminder of Crowder's value, especially that quiet ability to hit a big shot when Boston's offense goes cold or generate a big late-game stop when things are starting to slip away. The Celtics have to figure out how to navigate this stretch without him and avoid the pitfalls that did them in on Tuesday.