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PISTONS 96, CELTICS 88

Sour note at end

Celtics can't cash in as they get outworked down stretch

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- As rebound after rebound fell into the wrong hands, as loose ball after loose ball squirted away, as the double-digit lead dwindled and then, eventually, disappeared, you could almost read Jim O'Brien's mind as he paced in front of the Celtics bench.

"I missed the Country Music Awards for this?"

Surely, there has to be a song out there about broken hearts and broken plays, about offensive rebounds and second chances, about lost opportunities and bad breaks. The Celtics lived it all last night, getting outhustled and outrebounded down the stretch before succumbing, 96-88, to the Detroit Pistons. The loss was the second straight for Boston after two early wins. And like the other loss (last Saturday to New Orleans), this one was definitely winnable. All that was needed was for someone, anyone, to get a rebound or a loose ball when the game was on the line in the fourth quarter. It didn't happen.

"I think our guys know what the difference in the game was," O'Brien said. "I try not to be sarcastic in huddles, but it was pointed out to them."

As in, can someone, anyone, please get me a rebound?

"It was a game we controlled and should have won," sighed Paul Pierce, who had 20 points, 10 assists, 7 rebounds, and 5 turnovers. "But we just gave them too many opportunities. That's the ballgame, right there." The Pistons outscored the Celtics, 23-18, in the fourth, pulling away with a flurry of threes, three of them from old friend Chauncey Billups (27 points, 6 assists). But the story was the Pistons controlling the offensive glass; Detroit had eight offensive rebounds in the fourth, leading to 8 second-chance points. The Celtics had only five defensive rebounds.

The main man for Detroit in situations like this: Big Ben Wallace. "He was a monster on the glass," saluted Pierce, and that he was. He had six of his 13 rebounds in the fourth -- four of them off the offensive boards. He also blocked two shots in the period. In addition to his 13 rebounds, 9 points, 4 assists, and 4 blocks, he also had 4 steals. The Celtics simply could not contain him.

"Ben is a guy that is so tenacious," O'Brien said. "I don't think there have been any guys more aggressive on the glass that I can ever remember. He's made himself into an All-Star with just that one element of his game [rebounding] and it's great to watch, unless you're coaching the other team."

Three sequences down the stretch killed the Celtics. Boston had played a more-than-passable first half, shooting 57 percent and taking a 54-45 lead into the locker room. The Celtics had trailed only once, and that for one possession. After losing the lead in the third quarter following the anticipated Pistons' intensity upgrade, Boston scored the first 6 points of the fourth to take a 76-73 lead.

Then came sequence No. 1. Rip Hamilton missed a jumper, but Wallace was there to snag the rebound. Out it went to Billups, who coolly knocked down a trey. The hoop (which followed a Mehmet Okur jumper on Detroit's previous possession) gave the Pistons a 78-76 lead. Detroit would never trail again.

The same sequence hit the Celtics again, this time with Detroit nursing an 80-78 lead. Hamilton missed. Wallace got the rebound. Billups drained a 3-pointer. Said Vin Baker, "We didn't rebound. We didn't get the loose balls. That was the story. It really hurt us."

The final killer sequence came with Detroit leading, 86-82, following a Tayshaun Prince 3-pointer. Wallace blocked Mike James at one end. Then the Pistons missed three shots, a jumper by Corliss Williamson and two Wallace tips. Williamson muscled in to get the rebound, make a fourth-chance layup, and the Pistons had a 6-point lead with 4:37 to play.

That is hardly insurmountable, but while the Celtics were getting pounded on the glass, they weren't doing much on the offensive end, either. They shot 42 percent. They missed three 3-pointers. They turned it over five times (Pierce three times). They still were well within striking distance after a Baker tip-in made it 90-86 with 2:05 to play. But then Billups struck again from international waters and that was that. "Three-pointers are a part of our team," Billups said.

The Pistons' surge spoiled what could have been a rewarding evening, marked by the debut of Jumaine Jones (18 minutes) and another solid stint from the recovering Baker (20 points, 6 rebounds, 3 steals). In the end, however, it was just another lost night on the road, a feeling summed up in song all too many times.

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