The Celtics' locker room was quiet. Pin-drop quiet. Heads were down. You would have thought the season was over.
But the feeling of winning has been so fulfilling, so beautiful, that the taste of defeat, even if it was just for the third in 23 games, was awful and tart. And it made them appreciate the winning so much more.
The Celtics' nine-game winning streak ended last night with an 87-85 loss to the Pistons in a nationally televised Eastern Conference showdown at TD Banknorth Garden. Boston (20-3) suffered its first home loss of the season in 13 games and its first defeat since Nov. 27 at Cleveland. Chauncey Billups scored a game-high 28 points and nailed two free throws with 0.1 seconds left to seal the game for the Pistons (18-7).
"It was very odd. It kind of felt like the end of the world," Celtics center Kendrick Perkins said. "It's a little different when we beat ourselves, you know what I'm saying? That's how I feel.
"It was a little dead [in the locker room]. It was the first game where I saw that guys were a little disappointed at each other. There was a lot of pointing fingers tonight for some reason . . . But it was nothing serious. We each got to look ourselves in the mirror and see what we do right [and wrong]. The rest will take care of itself."
Kevin Garnett scored 26 points and grabbed 12 rebounds for the Celtics, while guard Ray Allen scored 24 points after missing the previous two games with a sore right ankle. Paul Pierce was held to 11 points 5-of-16 shooting, about 10 points fewer than his average. Detroit's backcourt of Billups and Rip Hamilton combined for 49 points and the Pistons hit nine 3-pointers. The Celtics also missed 8 of 21 free throws.
"It was somber," Allen said. "Everybody had their heads down even though nobody really needs to hold their heads down. We have to look each other, ourselves, the small little things that we did that added to us losing the game."
The Celtics entered the fourth quarter up, 65-61. But a Lindsey Hunter 3-pointer gave Detroit a 68-67 lead with 9:42 left, the Pistons' first lead since 11-9. A lay-in by Billups gave Detroit a 78-71 lead with 5:58 remaining.
"We turned the ball over," Allen said. "We gave them the momentum. That's when they took the lead."
Allen showed that his ankle was just fine when his reverse jam with 5:44 left sliced Boston's deficit to 78-73. Allen's 3-pointer brought the Celtics within 81-78 with 4:29 remaining. A Billups 3-pointer pushed the Pistons ahead, 85-79, with 1:42 remaining.
An Eddie House 3-pointer brought Boston within 3, 85-82, with 1:01 remaining. And an Allen 3-pointer with 18.9 seconds left tied the game at 85.
"I told the guys, 'You can never be down, no matter what the score is. You can always have a chance to fight back, get in the game, and win,' " Allen said. "We showed some character there in the end."
The Pistons had the last chance in regulation, or so it seemed. As Billups drove to the basket, he lost the ball to Garnett with 5.9 seconds left. Garnett intelligently called time out with 5.1 seconds remaining. With the clock winding down, Pierce missed a 16-foot jumper with 2.9 seconds left.
"I had a wide-open look," Pierce said. "It came up short. I think I kind of rushed the shot. I should have held for the last shot. But those are the breaks of the game."
The Pistons' Rasheed Wallace got the rebound and his team got a 20-second timeout with 1.7 seconds left. The Pistons passed the ball in to Billups, who pump-faked Tony Allen by the free throw line and was fouled with 0.1 seconds left. Billups made both to win the game.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers said his players had problems paying attention during shootaround and one thing they tried to emphasize is that Billups pump-fakes into fouls.
"[Billups] made a hard play, obviously," Rivers said. "Listen, Chauncey made those two free throws, we missed a ton of them, all game. So it's easy to go one play on Tony because that's the last play they saw. We clearly needed a bigger body on Chauncey, and so for us, I would put Tony in that same situation again. And have him defend it again."
Said Billups: "I've been in that position before. I missed. This time, it worked out great."
The Celtics are now in new territory. There is no big winning streak. There has been a blemish at home. Rivers has said he is interested to see how his team will deal with adversity this season. Now he will get a chance to find out.
"Losing games levels you off, as much as you don't like it," Ray Allen said. "It almost humbles you."