AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Once again, the Celtics proved they could play with the Pistons. But not for an entire game.
After leading by as many as 13 points in the third quarter, the Celtics were doomed by foul trouble, turnovers, a stagnant offense, and the hot hand of Detroit point guard Chancey Billups. When it was all said and done, the Pistons defeated the Celtics, 115-100, last night to remain the only undefeated team in the NBA.
Once again, the Pistons had too many weapons and too much experience for the Celtics to handle.
After the Pistons fell behind by 10 at halftime, it seemed only a matter of time until they got back on track. The Celtics' troubles began when Delonte West picked up his fourth foul with 3 minutes 5 seconds remaining in the third quarter, prompting coach Doc Rivers to insert Dan Dickau.
It is no secret that Dickau struggles defensively, and he couldn't come close to containing Billups (25 points). The Pistons attacked the weak link, as Billups scored 11 of the team's final 14 points in the third. In defense of Dickau, Rivers had Ricky Davis guard Billups over the final two minutes of the quarter, and the results were the same. And the reason West wound up in foul trouble was because he struggled guarding Billups.
With 23.7 seconds remaining in the third, Billups completed a 3-point play and brought Detroit within 1 point (78-77) after it trailed by as many as 13 (65-52). As Billups stood at the free throw line, Paul Pierce shouted to his teammates, "We're all right. Let's go." He was motioning for his teammates to settle down. Pierce kept up his end of the bargain by hitting a 3-pointer to push Boston ahead, 81-77, at the end of the quarter.But once the fourth got under way, nothing was all right for the Celtics.
Detroit opened with a 7-0 run, taking the lead, 82-81, when Carlos Arroyo hit a 16-footer on the break with 10:09 remaining. The Celtics never would regain the lead as the Pistons stepped up their defense and shared the ball on offense. The shooters who had been cold in the first half found their rhythm. To make things worse, the Celtics reverted to bad habits as they committed costly turnovers and Pierce (23 points) tried to singlehandedly engineer a comeback.
The usually raucous Palace of Auburn Hills stayed eerily quiet for much of the first half as fans sat in stunned silence watching Boston outrun and outhustle Detroit. The Celtics looked like a team that had built chemistry and confidence after years playing together, though that more typically describes the Pistons.
The Celtics moved the ball unselfishly and earned easy baskets as a result, zipping passes inside to Mark Blount, Al Jefferson, Pierce, and Davis. They did not neglect the attack from outside, finding the open man for jumpers. There was nothing fearsome about the Pistons' defense as Boston shot 67 percent and took a 58-48 lead into halftime.
Although Boston stretched its advantage 9 (19-10) when Davis found Raef LaFrentz for a 3-pointer midway through the first quarter, the Green really seemed to take control with Davis and the second unit on the floor. There was no stopping Jefferson inside. And no stopping Davis from anywhere on the floor as he scored 22 of his team-high 31 points in the first half.
When Jefferson replaced LaFrentz with 2:02 left in the first, the score was tied, 21-21. Shortly before Jefferson exited and Rivers returned his entire starting unit to the court midway through the second quarter, the Celtics led by 12 points (41-29) after a fast-break layup by Davis. The Pistons initially got the better of the battle between the starters, cutting their deficit to 4 points. But Davis would not be denied and followed an 11-footer with a 3-pointer to start a 9-1 run. When Davis found Blount for a dunk to cap the spurt, the Celtics once again held a 12-point lead.
There was a relentlessness in the Celtics' play that seemed to show just how much they wanted to avenge a last-second home loss to the Pistons Nov. 4. There was no letup on either end of the floor as everyone dived for loose balls and hustled back on defense.
The Pistons managed to shoot 48 percent in the first half, but very few baskets came easily. The question was whether Boston would sustain that energy and intensity in the second half.
Meanwhile, the Pistons were looking for a break, any break. They were just one run away from making the Celtics uncomfortable. Richard Hamilton had been productive on offense in the first half. Tayshaun Prince, Billups, and Rasheed Wallace were largely held in check, though Detroit appeared to be moving the ball well, with 18 assists on 21 field goals.
The likelihood of the Palace staying quiet for the rest of the night was slim, and the Celtics knew it.