INDIANAPOLIS -- Hang around.
That's what the Boston Celtics did Wednesday night in Indiana. They got pushed around early but kept things close enough to muster a fourth-quarter charge from a double-digit deficit, then watched Jeff Green deliver the winning layup with a half-second remaining to stun the Pacers as part of an 83-81 triumph at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
That's what these Celtics have done all year. They stumbled into the new calendar year two games under .500 and endured three season-ending injuries to key players, and almost everyone wanted them to blow up the core at the trade deadline because their chances at competing for a title seemed nonexistent.
After Wednesday's thrilling triumph in Indiana -- a potential playoff preview -- the Celtics have won four straight to move a season-high six games over .500. Boston is 1½ games out of the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, and, for maybe the first time this season, the rest of the league has to come to a realization.
You can't let this team hang around.
"For our team, it's a great thing to just hang around," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "It's what we've been all year; we're just hanging around. And we stole this game."
The Celtics had little in the tank Wednesday night. They had bumbled their way through a win in Philadelphia a night earlier, turning the ball over a season-high 23 times. They limited those miscues in Indiana, but captain Paul Pierce labored, playing with a minor bone bruise suffered in the Philly game and missing 11 of the 15 shots he put up. Playing the best defensive team in the league, the Celtics shot a mere 41 percent, got eaten alive in the paint early on and trailed by as many as 14.
But these Celtics simply won't roll over, no matter the adversity encountered. They didn't Wednesday and they haven't this season.
"People who voted us off didn't really know who we are," Kevin Garnett said. "They're just writing. I think half the journalists out there don't even watch basketball. They just talk. I don't really know what it is. We really don't care and right now we're focused on what we're doing in here."
The Celtics have long rallied around the us-versus-the-world mentality, and this season is no different. Boston plays its best basketball when the odds are the longest. The Celtics are never more dangerous than when they are most desperate.
But give them any glimmer of hope, the tiniest sliver of opportunity, and they'll pounce. The Pacers found out the hard way.
Boston gave Indiana a little taste of its own defensive-minded medicine, limiting the Pacers to 36.4 percent shooting (32-of-88 overall). Roy Hibbert put up 12 points on 6-of-9 shooting with seven rebounds and a block during an eight-minute shift to start the game; he didn't score again, missing his final four shots and grabbing just five more rebounds over his final 24 minutes of floor time.
You have to deliver the knockout punch with these Celtics.
"I just thought [the Pacers] were so much more physical than us, they were taking us out of our stuff, they were into us, and we weren't responding very well," Rivers said. "Then we came out in the second half and kinda fought back but just hung in there."
Every time Boston got close, Indiana seemed to pull away again. Jason Terry hit a big 3-pointer, and George Hill responded with two of his own. But despite not owning a lead for 40 straight minutes, the Celtics got over the hump at the clutchest of moments with a brilliant play call that ended with Green's layup in traffic off a feed from Garnett (Pierce setting the brilliant back pick to spring him).
"We're starting to get into a rhythm," Pierce said. "This is the time when teams start peaking. When you're 60 games in, you're going to know one way or the other. It's time that we knew what we were trying to do out there, who we're trying to get the ball to. This is the time to start peaking."
The Celtics improved to 13-4 since Rajon Rondo was lost for the season with a torn ACL. Boston was 20-23 after a double-overtime loss in Atlanta that saw it fumble away a monster lead (and Rondo was hurt in the process). The Celtics were clinging to the edge of the mountain, and if someone had simply stomped on their hands, they might have fallen.
Instead they hung around. Now they are climbing up that mountain again, hell-bent on getting to the top.
The Celtics beat the Heat (one of the last teams to do so) in overtime on national TV while ripping off a season-best seven straight wins before the All-Star break. The Celtics stumbled again out west, but management kept the core intact despite the pleas of armchair general managers everywhere to trade away Garnett and Pierce with diminished title hopes.
These Celtics just won't go quietly into the night.
They entered this week's back-to-back a mere 10-18 on the road this season, far and away the worst record among potential East playoff teams. But Boston survived an ugly night in Philadelphia and served notice to Indiana that the Celtics still plan to be in the mix when the playoffs arrive.
And no one in the East is going to be happy to see them hanging around in the postseason.