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Celtics a bit off balance

DENVER — Even though Victor Oladipo’s 3-pointer with 3.4 seconds left buried them Saturday night, the Celtics remain the NBA’s staunchest defensive team, and the only one with a sub-100 rating.

But that 98.9 defensive statistic has some blemishes, regardless of the fact they won four straight before Saturday in Indianapolis.

“We have to be better at the end of games. There’s no question about that,” coach Brad Stevens said. “We did some good things, too. We executed well, Kyrie (Irving) made some huge shots. The last play will look better on film than it did on the steal, but certainly Oladipo made a great second effort to get there. Defensively we can be a little bit better and not put ourselves in that position.”

Their 27th-ranked offense is an entirely different issue.

The Celtics withstand their offensive inconsistencies by stopping teams. And tomorrow night’s opponent, Denver, is tough at both ends. The Nuggets are the 10th-best offensive team, even without the rehabbing Isaiah Thomas, and they are third in defensive rating, a better balance than the C’s.

“I’m not even focused on the offense. … We need to be able to get stops … and we weren’t able to at the end,” Al Horford said of the Pacers game. “That’s a credit to them, but we have to be better in that regard.

“Sometimes it goes like that. There were some games early this season that have worked in our favor. We’re living on the edge a little too much. So maybe this will wake us up as a group and understand that we need to be better. We shouldn’t rely on that last minute of the game, the last seconds of the game, to turn the fate of the game.”

Irving, who pinned Saturday’s loss on his own missed layup before Oladipo’s game-winner, also points a finger at himself regarding the defensive shortcomings. He’s trying to become a better defender.

“It starts at the point of attack, honestly, with me at the top of the key, and then the ball pressure I can put on other guards,” said Irving, who fell into early foul trouble against the Pacers. “So me having three fouls in the first and second and coming into the third, the assertiveness wasn’t necessarily there where it’ll kind of enliven our backside defense.

“We’ve just got to do the little things, which is being more assertive on that end to create mischief.”

Work on the 2’s

Offensively, the Celtics face a long climb up the league chart. In addition to being ranked 27th in offensive rating, they are 28th in attempted free throws at 19.8 per game. Indiana, 29th in that category, eclipsed them at the line by a 29-9 margin.

For all of their big nights shooting 3-pointers, the Celtics’ attack on the paint has suffered.

“We have to continue to attack the paint, use fakes in there to get to the line,” Stevens said. “What we can’t have happen is get our shots blocked at the rim and let them go the other way in transition. That kills you. If you look at it, our 3’s aren’t the problem as much as our 2-point shooting. We’re not strong enough around the rim.

“We’ve got a couple of guys who are drivers. That’s what they do, get to the line. Those guys have to do it, and hopefully we can get to the line with good, strong finishes off two feet.”

The hunted

Irving was bemused by Pacers fans’ reactions to the win.

“Everywhere we go, it’s like they won a championship game against us,” he said. “The way their fans were celebrating, everybody was celebrating, that’s something I’ve gotten used to over the course of my career, playing teams where it doesn’t matter if they’re on a back-to-back, if they’ve had days of rest.

“They’re going to come at us, as they should. We’ll be ready. We’ll be ready to go right back at them. So just having those moments where we have a few possessions where we’re not as engaged can affect us. But it’ll translate as we go forward.”

Twitter: @Murf56

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