Celtics Lose Nail Biter

November 05, 2005

The Celtics' coaching staff lingered as officials watched a replay of the 17-footer Rip Hamilton released at the buzzer. They held out a small amount of hope before replays showed the ball leave Hamilton's fingertips just before time expired. Nobody had switched out on Hamilton, and as a result the Pistons shooting guard had a clear view of the basket and swished the game-winner as Detroit defeated the Celtics, 82-81, last night at the TD Banknorth Garden. Only moments earlier, the Celtics had celebrated a 15-footer by Mark Blount (16 points, 9 rebounds) that appeared to seal the game in their favor with 0.8 seconds left.

Boston tried to separate itself from Detroit midway through the fourth. A 19-footer by Paul Pierce put the Celtics ahead, 70-69. Then, the captain went to the line for a pair of free throws. He followed with a leaning 12-footer, then struggled with free throws the rest of the way, keeping it close when the Celtics had a chance to salt it away from the line. Pierce went 2 for 5 from the line in the closing minutes.

The Pistons usually don't make the same defensive mistake, but they did last night. Raef LaFrentz (10 points) drained a 19-footer after a nearly three-minute scoring drought. Then, with 5:19 remaining in the third quarter, LaFrentz hit a 3-pointer to tie the score, 51-51. On the Celtics' next possession, three Pistons defenders closed in on Pierce (28 points) and left LaFrentz wide open in the right corner. There was no one within 10 feet of LaFrentz as he hit another triple and pushed Boston back ahead, 54-51,with 4:45 left in the quarter. The burst of offense by LaFrentz was just what the Celtics needed.

In the timeout preceding the first LaFrentz basket, Celtics coach Doc Rivers encouraged his players to win with defense and not become frustrated by offensive lulls. Young, inexperienced teams often let their offense dictate defensive intensity, and Boston could not afford to do that against a seasoned group such as the Pistons. Although the Celtics entered the fourth trailing, 61-60, they learned a valuable lesson in patience and perseverance. One that helped them at the start of the fourth when they again struggled to score.

It was not until Pierce hit an 18-footer with 8:07 left that the Celtics had their first points of the fourth quarter. But the Pistons were not faring much better on the other end as they were forced to rush shots with sloppy passes. As a result, when Pierce hit the jumper, Boston trailed only 63-62. Ricky Davis banked in an 11-foot fadeaway with 7:25 left to push the home team back ahead, 64-63. It would remain close down the stretch as Pierce attempted to take over and the Celtics' defense stepped up its intensity.

When Rivers watched the Pistons play their season opener, he was "scared" by the effortless efficiency of the defending Eastern Conference champions as they dispatched Philadelphia by 20 points. Detroit's first-half performance last night was scary for other reasons. Scary because the Celtics entered halftime with a 43-38 lead after Blount nailed a 19-footer at the buzzer. Scary because the Pistons weren't playing particularly well and the second half left a lot of room for improvement.

With the exception of the irrepressible Hamilton (26 points), Boston succeeded in keeping the Detroit starters largely in check, and no help came from the bench as the visitors shot 35 percent from the floor. The Celtics moved the ball better (11 assists), rebounded better (28-22), and shot better (almost 50 percent in the second quarter) than the Pistons. The Detroit frustration was obvious and gained expression when Flip Saunders picked up technical with 1:55 left in the half. Only 21 seconds before, Pierce hit a 5-foot turnaround hook shot that gave Boston its first lead. After spending most of the first half trying to take control, the Celtics tried to hang on to their lead in the second half.

Boston led by as many as 7 points (41-34) after Davis went in for a driving layup with 56.9 seconds left in the half and outscored Detroit, 25-17, in the second quarter. The offensive emergence of Davis at the end of the second was a good sign for the Celtics since they would need him to score in the second half to keep an advantage. While they appreciate Davis leading team in assists through two quarters, Boston could not survive with just Pierce and Blount racking up the points.

The Celtics would also need the scrappiness on defense, demonstrated especially by the second unit. To some extent, Boston had to beat blue-collar Detroit at its own game. Blount grabbing more rebounds than reigning Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace was an obvious step in the right direction. Al Jefferson and Delonte West also pitched in with help on the glass.

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