Paul George reminds Celtics of the value of a go-to player

BOSTON -- When things got tight in the fourth quarter of Wednesday's game, the Indiana Pacers instinctively put the ball in Paul George's hands.

The power forward single-handedly generated more field goals over the final seven minutes than the 10 players deployed by the Boston Celtics in that span.

George scored 17 of his game-high 26 points in the second half and made three big buckets down the stretch as the Pacers pulled away for a 102-91 triumph at TD Garden. Over the final 7:20, the Celtics generated a measly four points on 2-of-9 shooting with seven turnovers.

The Celtics believe their depth can be their biggest asset this season. The trouble they are finding is that it's not obvious who is supposed to lead in crunch time. This is the peril of a team lacking a superstar.

"I feel really good about knowing what each guy brings and, hey, there’s a reason that Paul George is Paul George," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "I think that’s a great credit to him. He gets every most difficult assignment, he scores twice in the post and you change matchups and try somebody else, and then he scores again and you change it again.

"There’s a reason that certain guys are at an elite level, right? I think that we’ve got a lot of young guys that aspire to be really good players and a big part of that is being a very good player every night."

The Celtics believe their next superstar will emerge soon -- one way or another. They could develop a star from within the organization, but they also have the assets to go find one -- whether that's via trade for an established player (is that strife in Sacramento, Mr. Cousins?) or by picking early in the draft (though the previously winless Brooklyn Nets, whose top pick belongs to the Celtics, didn't exactly help Boston's cause by posting their first win of the season tonight against the Houston Rockets).

Isaiah Thomas, the closest thing to a star on Boston's current roster, is struggling to score with efficiency this season. Thomas has missed at least nine shots in every game this season, including Wednesday when he finished 4-of-13 shooting (30.8 percent) with 14 points. Thomas is averaging a team-best 21.7 points per game but putting up 17.8 shots per contest and shooting just 38.3 percent overall (and 25.7 percent beyond the 3-point arc).

Thomas checked in with 5:47 to play and the Celtics down five. The Pacers fed the ball to George, and he muscled right through Marcus Smart -- one of Boston's best man-to-man defenders, albeit playing with a sore toe that kept him out of three games -- for a leaner in the lane. At the other end, the Celtics gave the ball to Thomas and he turned it over while driving to the hoop, allowing Monta Ellis to race the other way for a layup as Indiana put the game out of reach.

Thomas missed two shots during his final shift -- both coming in the final 92 seconds -- and had two turnovers. His Celtics teammates did little to distract Indiana's defense, but the bigger concern for Boston is the team's inability to step up down the stretch.

“I thought they just really clamped down on [Thomas]; they really closed the lanes on him and they forced us to make some shots and we didn’t," Stevens said. "And, at the same time, I think that we can do a better job of making one extra pass off one extra screen and one extra part of execution to get better shots. And I’ve got to do a better job of calling them; I saw a couple of plays in transition that I thought would be good opportunities and just didn’t call anything."

The Celtics operated much of the fourth quarter with a lineup that included rookie first-round picks R.J. Hunter and Terry Rozier in part because typical starting guards Smart (toe) and Avery Bradley (calf) weren't healthy enough to stay on the floor. Those minutes will help Hunter and Rozier down the road, but Boston has lofty immediate goals after last season's playoff surge, and this 3-4 start isn't what the team had in mind with a home-friendly schedule out of the gate.

Tougher challenges lie ahead with the Atlanta Hawks visiting before a brief back-to-back road schedule in Oklahoma City and Houston. Dallas visits when Boston returns home next week. The Celtics could use a guy like George to lean on.

As Pacers guard George Hill said of having George back this season: "Anytime you get your main guy, you know one guy backing you up, it makes a lot of things easier. I think he’s playing phenomenal right now. I think he’s doing a good job of leading us. I think everyone’s doing a good job feeding off his energy also. But we know that if we’re in a tight spot or need a playmaker, it’s always good to know that you got that guy in your corner as one of the best in the league."