A welcome break in the action

The best part about that Indiana game? It's over.

Sure, this wasn't the way the Boston Celtics wanted to go into a five-day holiday break. The Green have lost three straight, including a 106-79 shellacking at the hands of the Eastern Conference-leading Pacers on Sunday night that spoiled Brad Stevens' homecoming.

Not that they are worried about the standings at the moment, but the Celtics have slipped behind the Toronto Raptors at the top of the Atlantic Division (although Boston's 12-17 record is still good enough for the eighth seed in the tumbledown East).

As Stevens has suggested many times before, Boston's progress won't be gauged by the team's win-loss record. But this little bump in the road only confirms the Celtics have taken a step or two back. After playing some of their most inspired ball early in December, winning five of their first seven games this month, they have stumbled a bit lately.

While no team likes to enter a lengthy break on a downturn, the Celtics could use a recess.

The Celtics have played 29 games in 54 days to start the 2013-14 season. Nineteen of those games came over the first 31 days of the campaign, but even as the schedule eases up slightly, the Celtics won't mind hitting the refresh button. The Green will enjoy three full days off to start this holiday break, and Boston reconvenes for practice Dec. 26; its next game is Saturday's visit from the Cleveland Cavaliers.

This three-game stretch before the break was supposed to be a chance for Boston to gauge its progress and see where it stood in the East. Despite owning big early leads against Detroit and Washington -- two very likely playoff teams -- the Celtics faltered late and dropped both. Stevens knew Sunday's trip to Indiana would be no picnic, and the Pacers dominated much of the game while improving to 13-1 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse this season.

Stevens downplayed the hype about returning to the city he was raised in, the same city where he established himself as a coach at Butler University. He admitted the crowd was decorated with friends and family, but deadpanned to reporters in Indianapolis after the loss that, "I probably would have been better off sitting up in the stands with somebody the way we played."

Indiana simply bullied Boston and its undersized frontcourt near the hoop for much of the game. The Celtics didn't generate their first points in the paint until more than 19 minutes in, by which time the hosts had built a 14-point lead as part of a game-altering 15-1 run. Indiana's lead went as high as 27 in the third quarter, when Lance Stephenson was filling up the box score on his triple-double, breaking Courtney Lee's ankles and gyrating toward Boston's bench.

Yes, the Celtics could use a refresh button.

"I felt like one team was here to play, the other team was already on their Christmas break and it showed," Celtics veteran Gerald Wallace said. "[The Pacers] executed well, and they pretty much dominated in every aspect of the game."

Visits from two more potential East playoff teams (Cleveland, Atlanta) loom when the Celtics get back on the floor. Six of the team's next seven after that are on the road, including a five-game Western swing that actually starts in the middle of the country in Oklahoma City.

Boston needs to clear its head a bit after this recent stretch. Players scattered across the country after Sunday's loss and will huddle again Thursday in Waltham with the goal of playing more consistent ball.

This stretch spanning into the new calendar year could help define the 2013-14 season. Can Boston remain competitive and, with Rajon Rondo's return looming early in 2014, emerge as an honest-to-goodness contender in the East (even if it's in the tier below the Pacers and Heat)? Or will Boston fade into the lottery, where many expected it would be this season?

For now, Boston players are welcoming the break. They know there's room for improvement, but it starts with embracing a rare chance to enjoy the holiday (even if many of Boston players pledged to spend these next three days working out on their own).

As Avery Bradley told reporters after Sunday's loss, "We took a lot of steps forward this [season]. Obviously, we took some back the last few games. We know what we need to improve on."