After trailing by 26 points in the first half, the Celtics took a pair of leads in the fourth quarter, only to lose, 97-91, on Friday night at the TD Garden.
BOSTON – They had already wiped out deficits of more than 20 points to win a pair of games this season.
A third comeback of that magnitude looked like it was in the works by the Celtics on Friday night.
They trailed the Indiana Pacers by as many as 26 points during a sluggish first half, then battled all the way back and actually took two one-point leads in the fourth quarter.
But the comeback this time was not completed by the Celtics, who faltered down the stretch at the offensive end.
Their bid to overtake the Pacers was denied, and the Celtics were dealt a 97-91 loss at the TD Garden.
The defeat sends the Celtics (40-17, .702) percentage points behind the idle Toronto Raptors (38-16, .704) in the Eastern Conference.
Things were so bad during a brutal first half for the Celtics that fans were booing them while others started a “Scalabrine’’ chant.
But the Celtics, as they have on other occasions this season, kicked it into gear during the third quarter and got right back into the game before falling victim to Victor Oladipo (35 points, 10 rebounds, five steals) in the end.
The Celtics had wiped out deficits of 26 and 22 points this season to score wins over the Houston Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers.
“It just took a lot to even get back until that point,’’ said Kyrie Irving, who led the Celtics with 21 points, 16 of them in the second half. “They were just a lot fresher down the stretch, and, you know, making plays, and Victor Oladipo just getting downhill and making some tough shots and some pullups as well.
“But we had no chance of being there, like, we had no reason being in that game anyway. We fought back, we battled back, but they came out and just really hit us in the mouth in the first half. And obviously, you know, there’s a decision that you have to make at halftime whether you’re going to concede or whether you’re going to fight. And we made the choice to fight which we, for the most part, do.
“You know, sometimes it’s too late, and tonight it just was a little too late.”
The Celtics, who had played an overtime game in Washington the night before while the Pacers were enjoying a third straight night off, were flat during the first half.
They were down, 30-16, after one quarter and 59-38 at the break with Oladipo scoring 17 of his points.
“I thought we started the game really going through the motions, and I thought they started the game really playing with great force and purpose,’’ said coach Brad Stevens.
Jaylen Brown (16) and Irving got the Celtics going in the third quarter when they outscored the Pacers, 34-17, to enter the final 12 minutes down, 76-72.
A long 3-pointer by Terry Rozier that beat the buzzer gave the Celtics momentum heading into the last quarter.
A 3-pointer by Al Horford with 4:45 remaining put the Celtics in front for the first time at 83-82 and a pair of Irving free throws with 4:01 to play gave them an 85-84 edge.
But the Celtics managed just six points the rest of the way – a three-point play Irving, a layup by Irving and a foul shot by Rozier.
Oladipo and Myles Turner took over for the Pacers and helped them fight off the Celtics.
“I think that our biggest issue as a team is we aren’t crisp,’’ said Stevens. “We don’t crisply do things on offense. We are probably more of a short-cut taking team then we need to be, to be the best version of ourselves, and I thought that hurt us in the first half more than in the second.
“But certainly then you’re digging such a hole that it can be a number of things why you can’t get back over the hump.’’
The Celtics made only 38 percent of their shots and went 7 for 27 from 3-point range.
Rozier was 1 for 11, though he had 10 points, and Marcus Morris went 3 for 12. Newcomer Greg Monroe missed all three of his shots and had two points and four rebounds in 11 minutes during the first half.
“Fatigue is always a factor,’’ said Irving, whose team played three games in four nights. “It’s always a factor playing in the NBA. But, hey, we get played pretty handsomely to be out there and take care of our bodies and demand a lot from ourselves. So, I mean, it’s just a game. I love it, ups and downs of it.”
Jim Fenton may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JFenton_ent.