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PISTONS 101, CELTICS 88

Courting trouble

Celtics drop second straight to open season

Paul Pierce said he was frustrated, but that the Celtics "weren't pushing the panic button right now." He has a legitimate point two games into the regular season. But the mere fact Pierce mentioned frustration and used the phrase "panic button" in his postgame remarks speaks volumes about the state of the Celtics.

The body language of both coach Doc Rivers and the captain also said a lot, as they looked disappointed and befuddled about what transpired last night at sold-out TD Banknorth Garden.

Boston had to be one frustrated team after a 101-88 loss to Detroit, and the panic button may appear sooner rather than later. And this comes after a game in which the Celtics actually started strong, led by as many as 8 points in the first half, and rallied from a 9-point, third-quarter deficit to briefly take the lead in the fourth. But all that came before the Pistons essentially closed it out with a 26-9 run, doing what confident, veteran teams do at the end of games.

"Tough loss, obviously," said Rivers. "Every loss is tough. Our guys are close. That's all I can say. They're close . . . but against a veteran team like [the Pistons], if you just let them hang around, eventually you're asking for trouble."

In his postgame talk to the team, Rivers used the Pistons as a model of how winning teams perform in the fourth quarter. When Richard Hamilton (27 points) settled into his offensive comfort zone in the fourth, Detroit repeatedly fed the ball to its shooting guard, ditto for when Rasheed Wallace (18 points, 9 rebounds) and Chauncey Billups (20 points, 11 assists) found their scoring rhythms late in the game.

Noting the exception of a layup by Carlos Delfino that gave the Pistons the lead for good, 77-76, with nine minutes remaining, Hamilton, Wallace, and Billups accounted for 26 of the visitors' 28 fourth-quarter points. As a result, Detroit shot its best (61 percent) when it mattered most.

In marked contrast, the Celtics strayed from the hot hand during the fourth and struggled through their worst quarter offensively, shooting 39 percent. First, Al Jefferson (11 points, 10 rebounds) looked promising as a go-to guy, regaining the lead, 74-73, by following a layup with a 6-footer. But Boston did not stay with Jefferson for long, and no one else emerged.

"[It's] definitely frustrating," said Pierce (22 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists). "We wanted to get off to a good start. Obviously, that's not the case. We find ourselves fighting back uphill on the road until we can develop some consistency. That's the way it's going to be. These guys have to learn what causes us to lose and what it's going to take for us to win.

"Look at Detroit and see the things they did. They value the ball. They ran their plays. They stuck with their game plan and they executed. Those are the things we have to learn to do."

But neither Rivers nor the players can predict when the Celtics might learn enough from their mistakes to change their fate in games such as last night's and the 4-point loss to the Hornets Opening Night. Both were games the Celtics thought they could have, should have, won.

Rivers said several times that Boston is close to earning the result it desires. But does that mean two weeks? Two months? An entire season of learning frustrating lessons at the hands of more-experienced teams, or even mediocre teams, as was the case with New Orleans/Oklahoma City? The most frustrating part is that no one in the locker room has an answer. The Celtics simply hope for a stretch of games when everything will click and create an almost magical transformation. Until then, Rivers knows it's his job to help the players believe "we're going to work this out."

"They're closer than we all think," said Rivers. "You can see it in stretches. It's really frustrating for me at times because you can see them do certain things so well. Then they go back [to bad habits]. Then they go back [to doing things well]. The problem is you can't predict when. They're playing hard. They're trying to do everything we're asking them to do.

"Paul believes and I believe it's going to come. Hopefully soon, hopefully [tonight]. This team is confidence away from being a pretty dangerous basketball team. The only way you get confidence is by winning, and the only way you win is by taking control of games down the stretch."

The Celtics are what you might call a three-quarter team. They can stick with an opponent such as the Pistons for three quarters. The fourth is a different story. Twelve extra minutes may not seem like a lot in the larger scheme of developing young players month by month, offseason by offseason, year by year. But at the moment, those 12 minutes mean everything to the Celtics' future.

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.

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