The Big Dig didn't happen in a day and neither will the rebuilding of the Celtics.
Architect Danny Ainge's work-in-progress offered signs of hope last night, erasing a 14-point deficit and regaining the lead with 3 minutes 33 seconds to play, before dropping a 106-103 decision to the Detroit Pistons at the FleetCenter in John Carroll's debut as Celtics interim coach.
"I thought there was a lot of positives," said Carroll.
There were. The Celtics, who fell to 11-14 at home, did not give up like they did Sunday against New Jersey (a 110-91 Celtics loss). They played hard until the final buzzer, when Boston failed to send the game to overtime as a 3-point attempt by Mike James didn't fall.
Seven-footer Mehmet Okur (21 points) clogged up the middle and teammate Ben Wallace (14 points, 15 rebounds) ruled the paint as Detroit broke a three-game losing streak.
Paul Pierce did what he could (26 points), and Chris Mihm (16 points, 14 in the first half, 9 rebounds) and Jiri Welsch (19 points and a couple of key assists) had their moments.
After Welsch hit a layup to put the Celtics up, 91-90, he followed on the next possession with a pair of free throws to increase Boston's lead to 93-90 with 2:56 to play.
That's when Wallace began hitting free throws. He came into the game hitting 51 percent of his foul shots, but went 4 for 4 in the final 2:25. The Pistons made 15 of 16 from the line in the final quarter.
"I don't know how you can beat this team when you put them at the foul line 43 times," said Carroll. "It was a problem at halftime and it was a problem through the second half."
That, along with a pair of jumpers by former Celtics first-round draft choice Chauncey Billups (21 points) down the stretch, doomed the Celtics.
"Guys were coming up with big shots down the stretch and that's our M.O.," said Billups. "That's how we've been winning all year."
It began like a runaway as the Celtics took leads of 11-1 and 25-15.
It didn't hurt that Detroit connected on just 26 percent (5 of 19) of its shots in the opening quarter. The Pistons made up for it in the next three quarters, connecting on 51 percent (27 of 53), taking the lead in the final minutes of the first half, and extending it to 14 points in the third.
But the Celtics didn't quit and actually put on a sustained charge, much of it with Pierce on the sidelines.
"As the cliche goes, moving over one seat is a big difference," said Carroll. "It's a big difference when your team is down 14 points and you're kind of responsible to get the thing back to square. But it was one of the most enjoyable nights I've had as a basketball coach. I'm extremely proud of how hard they played."
"They made it exciting," said Pistons coach Larry Brown. "They just kept coming back."
Brown, who lamented O'Brien's resignation ("One of the better guys in the league got fired"), said he didn't see anything new from the Celtics. "I've been coaching against these guys since Rick [Pitino] got here and I've never, ever questioned their effort in all the years I've been coaching against them," Brown said. "They always try to defend and they don't have much of an inside game. You didn't see them score on post-ups tonight. Mihm and [Mark] Blount both played great, but most of their plays were on dribble penetration."
Mihm said the approach to last night's game wasn't much different from what the Celtics have tried to do all season. "We still have the same mentality defensively and offensively," he said. "I think we came out here and played our best tonight . . . made some mistakes, but the effort was there. I was happy with how everyone responded to the craziness from [Tuesday], but, you know, you've got to go on from here."
"I saw a lot of bright spots," said Carroll. "It's very disappointing to lose any game, but against a quality team and a well-coached team like that . . . I told those guys I think that if we continue to play like that and play as hard, we'll be in a lot of ballgames and, hopefully, we can win our fair share."