Offense, defense, ball control. Play with them, you win. Play without them, you lose. Wednesday night in Detroit, the Celtics played without them, and they lost. The Celtics shot 44.2 percent through the first three quarters, allowed the Pistons to shoot 55.7 percent and turned the ball over 21 times, losing 104-92 to the Pistons. Kevin Garnett left in the first quarter with a “lower leg injury” and did not return.
Garnett injured his leg with 2:38 left in the first quarter. Down 23-14, Ray Allen passed the ball to Garnett under the basket. Garnett caught the pass and slammed it home, but came up limping afterward. He immediately fouled Pistons small forward Tayshaun Prince, then collapsed onto the court. Trainers came out quickly, and Garnett was helped off the court. Upon sitting down, Garnett immediately buried his face in his hands to hide his pain. Garnett was then helped into the locker room, making it most of the way unassisted before collapsing in pain again. He never returned to the game.
X-Rays came back negative for any fracture, but Garnett will undergo an MRI in Boston on Thursday to see if there’s any ligament damage.
Garnett had averaged 14.4 points and 10.5 per game in December.
Even before Garnett’s injury, the Celtics were playing sloppy, ugly basketball. They did not appear to be approaching this game with the same degree of intensity and focus that enabled them to win 15 of their last 16 games.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the Celtics passing game. Missing Rajon Rondo (averaging 13.8 assists per game) for the sixth straight game, the Celtics could not move the basketball with the usual speed and crispness. They had the most trouble with bounce passes, which continually hit their targets in the feet or legs instead of coming up to their stomachs or chests. This led to 21 turnovers, the highest total since the Celtics turned it over 22 times in a February game against the New Orleans Hornets last season. The 21 turnovers led to 23 Pistons points.
For the second time in three games, the Celtics lost the assist battle. The Pistons passed for 27 assists, the Celtics only 18.
Inconsistent in the Paint
The Celtics seemed to have the Pistons on the ropes early in the first quarter. Within the first four minutes of the game, the Pistons had already committed four fouls. But the Celtics stopped going inside after the Pistons picked up their fourth foul. Detroit didn’t enter the penalty until just 30 seconds were left in the quarter, and Boston only shot two extra free throws because of it. They still dominated the paint, outscoring the Pistons 42-32, but they never seemed to establish a clear inside presence. Garnett’s absence may have been a cause of this, as was Shaquille O’Neal’s limited presence. Though he never appeared to be injured, O’Neal played just 16 minutes, the fewest of any player besides Garnett or rookies Avery Bradley and Luke Harangody, who combined to play 10 minutes and score two points.
Slow Defensive Transitions
The Celtics play the stingiest defense in the league, allowing just 90.9 points per game. But the Pistons scored 104 points on 55.7 percent shooting, and they did it through speed and aggression. The Pistons would regularly drive into the lane, then employ one of two strategies. Sometimes they would pull up for a jump-shot, which players such as Tracy McGrady (21 points on 7-11 shooting) usually made. Other times they would dish it back out for the three-pointer, which they hit two out of every three times. This second strategy was on full display midway through the third quarter, where Detroit center Ben Wallace found his teammates for two consecutive three-pointers in less than a minute. The Pistons made four of their 10 three-point shots in the third quarter and stretched their lead from 45-37 at halftime to 74-62 heading into the fourth.
The Celtics could not get stops, so they were unable to make much of a dent in the lead. Though they got as close as 33-30 with 7:22 in the second quarter, the Pistons then went on a 10-2 run for the next six minutes and went into halftime up 45-37.
The Celtics’ inability to contain the Pistons inside, forcing them to rotate extra defenders, led to open Pistons all night long. And the Pistons made the Celtics pay for leaving them open all night long, too.
Paul Pierce: Lone Bright Spot
As he has so many times before, Paul Pierce tried to unilaterally carry the Celtics to victory. He played 39 minutes and scored 33 points, his most since scoring 35 against the Atlanta Hawks last January. He was the most accurate shooter for the Celtics as well as their most prolific, shooting 11-16, including 3-4 from beyond the arc. In the first quarter he drained two treys and found Nate Robinson, but he did his most damage in the second half, where he scored 24 points. On one play in the fourth quarter Pierce dribbled around all five Pistons before laying it in. But his efforts alone weren’t enough to rally a team that looked disinterested and out-of-sorts all night long.
The Celtics started slowly, couldn’t get stops, and couldn’t handle the ball: a good way to lose, no matter how mediocre the opponent.