The Indiana Pacers made the Boston Celtics look like a team well past its prime in a convincing win last week. Nothing that's happened in the past seven days has indicated the Celtics are any closer to regaining their youthful spirit.
The reeling Celtics try to avoid a fourth straight loss Saturday night against the Pacers, who have only enhanced their reputation as one of the league's up-and-coming teams with four wins in their past five.
Boston (4-6) responded to an 0-3 start with four consecutive victories upon Paul Pierce's return, but those wins came against opponents that are currently a combined 7-28.
The competition has gotten tougher, and the Celtics haven't responded well. Indiana (8-3) held Boston to 25 first-half points in an 87-74 win at TD Garden on Jan. 6, then the Celtics lost to Dallas 90-85 on Wednesday despite having an unusually long four-day break.
They didn't fare any better Friday, falling behind 52-33 at halftime in an 88-79 loss to Chicago. They've averaged 33.0 points in the first half of their last three defeats.
"The last couple of games we've gotten off to poor starts,'' said Pierce, who finished with 13 points on 3-of-12 shooting. "(We) have to scratch and claw our way back and exert so much energy that by the time we catch up with them our guys are tired and can't get over the hump.''
Boston (4-6) seems to have two big issues, one of which is affecting the other. The Celtics are grabbing 37.0 rebounds per game - tied for the fewest in the NBA - and are getting edged on the boards by an average of 3.3 per game, one of the league's worst differentials.
Due to those struggles, Boston isn't getting nearly as many possessions or looks at the basket. The Celtics are shooting a solid 46.2 percent from the field, but they're attempting just 72.6 field goals per game - easily the fewest in the league, and an average that over a full season would be the NBA's lowest since 1998-99.
Boston took 66 shots and was outrebounded 47-36 in last week's loss to the Pacers as Indiana cruised despite getting just two points from David West and watching Danny Granger shoot 3 of 14.
Granger's shooting woes have been a common theme early for the Pacers, and that was no different Friday in Toronto as he missed seven of eight attempts in the first half.
He didn't get a chance to recover, though, getting ejected with 29 seconds left in the second quarter after picking up his second technical foul. But Indiana didn't panic down five at the break, going 32 of 38 at the free-throw line and getting a season-high 22 points from George Hill in a 95-90 win.
"That's us,'' Hill said of Indiana's comeback. "We've got to play with a chip on our shoulder. Eighth place last year is not good enough for us. We feel like we can be one of the top teams in the East.''
The Pacers should be confident considering they're five games above .500 despite Granger's slow start and some generally shaky shooting. Indiana is connecting on just 41.8 percent of its shots, among the league's five worst success rates.
But it's winning with balance and defense. Hill's performance Friday gave the Pacers a seventh scorer averaging double figures, while the 89.5 points they allow are among the NBA's fewest.
Hill could see time defending Rajon Rondo on Saturday, and he may want to force him to shoot. Rondo has taken exactly eight shots in all three Celtics wins, while attempting 10 or more in five of their six losses.