AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- The turning point in last night's game came less than three minutes into the third quarter. That's when Gary Payton limped to the visitors' locker room after suffering a strained left hamstring.
Trainer Ed Lacerte trailed the 36-year-old veteran, who was bothered by a swollen right knee this week. Payton did not return and Boston did not recover from a 36-12 Detroit run that stretched from the second quarter into the third. Without Payton at point guard, the Celtics continued to struggle and the Pistons prevailed, 100-88.
"I want to play and I want to be out there to lead this team," said Payton, "but [last night coach Doc Rivers] told me, `We're looking to the future.' I decided, `Well, we've got to do that.' When it started to get into a knot, I got scared because I don't want to snap it. I was trying to work it out, but it just got worse. Once I felt I couldn't get off my feet, it was time for me to stop."
The contest was lopsided enough in the fourth quarter that Detroit coach Larry Brown inserted seldom-used Darko Milicic with 7 minutes 30 seconds left to play, to the delight of the sellout crowd. Piston fans have nicknamed Milicic the "human victory cigar."
Until they closed within 9 points (97-88) with a 15-2 run late in the fourth, the Celtics seemed more concerned with who wasn't on the court than who was. And one can only wonder what would've happened with Payton handling the ball down the stretch, rather than Marcus Banks and Ricky Davis, who kept Boston from drawing closer by turning over the ball.
As Boston left the Palace of Auburn Hills, it was uncertain whether Payton would be available for tonight's game against New Orleans. At the start of the season, Payton played with a broken right thumb as he added to a consecutive games streak that stands at 305, second only to Antawn Jamison's 357. Losing Payton would constitute a worst-case scenario. Backup Banks is still searching for consistency, as was evident last night.
"I don't know if Gary is going to play [tonight] or not," said Rivers. "My guess would be no, if it's a hamstring. He might play [tonight]. He might not. He might be out a week, two weeks. You don't know. At his age, hamstrings are a scary injury. I'm not going to put him out there unless he's 100 percent because, if you don't, he goes out and pulls it or tears it and then you've lost him for the year. We'll reevaluate [today]. If he can't play, obviously, it's a huge loss for our team.
"He's one of our key guys, not just playing basketball, but in a leadership role. It's what we were trying to prevent all year. The odds of it happening, honestly, were pretty high. You had to assume that he would go down, not in a big way, but just for a couple games. This could be not serious. We just don't know."
If last night was any indication, a doctor's order to rest will not sit well with Payton. The veteran, who has no history of hamstring injuries, first felt a twinge behind his left leg just five minutes into the contest, though he did not know what triggered the pain. He continued to play as the hamstring tightened and he planned to reenter the game when Lacerte informed Rivers it could be something serious. Rivers recognizes Payton is someone who "loves to play, hurt or not." Payton grudgingly realizes it's better to rest than risk further injury.
"We'll make a game-time decision," said Payton. "Right now, it's not feeling really well. It'll be OK. We're going to have to wait. I'm going to get treatment, see the doctor, and see what's going on.
"Doc gives me enough respect that he'll let me make the decision [tonight]. I don't think I'm going to jeopardize getting hurt more to go out and play one game. I'd rather rest it, but if it feels good, I'm going to try to do it. [The consecutive games streak] doesn't mean anything if it's going to hurt me down the road. This team needs me on the basketball court. I'd rather miss one game than come out and hurt myself and be out for the rest of the season."
Even with Payton playing, albeit on one good leg, the Pistons beat the Celtics at their own game, running the visitors ragged in the closing minutes of the second quarter to start their decisive 36-12 run. Detroit broke a 33-33 tie and built a 53-39 halftime lead, by scoring in transition. The home team shot 49 percent and finished with a 22-12 advantage in fast-break points. Once again, the Celtics' defense was not up to the challenge, allowing an opponent to score 100 or more points for the 10th straight game. Detroit ranks 28th in the league, averaging 89.6 points per game.
Once the third quarter started, both teams picked up precisely where they had left off. The Pistons were working on a rout, while the Celtics were trying to save face. Detroit was up, 85-61, at the end of the third. Boston found some energy and the basket, narrowing its deficit late in the fourth. But without Payton directing the Celtics down the stretch, it was a lost cause.