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Pistons 105, Celtics 95

Loose ball

Celtics a bit sloppy late again in defeat

By Frank Dell'Apa
Globe Staff / March 2, 2009
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In the NBA, sweeps do not mean much until the playoffs. But the threat of a whisk broom was enough to motivate the Detroit Pistons yesterday.

Marquee players Kevin Garnett and Allen Iverson were missing, but the game received enough promotion on its own merits, and the Pistons, who hadn't beaten the Celtics in three tries this season, set the pace in taking a 105-95 victory.

"They had great fire, they didn't want to get swept by us," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "I was laughing every day this week. 'Sunday's game, Celtics have a chance to sweep the Pistons,' and I'm thinking, stop running that ad; you're putting bulletin board material on for them."

The Celtics lost for the second time in three games, again collapsing in the late going. Without Garnett (knee strain), who is expected to miss the team's visit to New Jersey Wednesday and also home games against Cleveland (Friday) and Orlando (next Sunday), the Celtics lacked a shot-blocker and also a perimeter matchup against Rasheed Wallace.

Paul Pierce (26 points) stretched the Celtics' lead to 3 points with 5:02 remaining. But the Pistons outscored the Celtics, 19-6, in the final 4:36.

For most of the season, the Celtics have had a knack for dominating the opposition with defensive intensity in the final minutes of games, but late-game collapses have cost them recently. They were outscored, 5-1, in the final minute against the Clippers in a 93-91 loss Feb. 25 and 7-2 in the final minutes after Garnett earlier had hopped off the court in a 90-85 defeat at Utah Feb. 19.

"It was definitely a winnable game, we had the lead in the fourth," said Pierce, who played all but 18 seconds. "The guys we had out there in the stretch are guys that have been here. We have guys who have been here down the stretch who know how to win games the way we're supposed to win the game."

The Pistons shut off Ray Allen (2 for 10) with overplays and trapping defenses. Richard Hamilton, who like Allen attended the University of Connecticut, set the defensive tone and also scored 25 points as the Pistons got their offense in gear without Iverson (stiff back). Detroit was 34 for a season-high 40 free throw attempts.

"You can tell they're playing the system they played before Iverson got there," Pierce said of the Pistons' early-season trade of Chauncey Billups to Denver for Iverson. "They run a lot of down screens with Rip [Hamilton] and they run a lot of high pick and rolls with [Rodney] Stuckey. That's what Chauncey used to do. Those guys that are out on the court, they're comfortable with each other. When Iverson is out there, they're still trying to figure out how to use each other, how to all be successful."

The Celtics, meanwhile, were struggling to do the same.

After a successful Celtic debut (in a 104-99 win over Indiana Friday night), Stephon Marbury failed to score and also committed four fouls in 12 minutes.

But the Celtics maintained the lead with Marbury on the court, then failed to stay in synch with an Allen-Eddie House-Pierce three-guard alignment, and went with Rajon Rondo at point guard too late to disrupt the Pistons' momentum.

In fact, the Celtics might have fallen out of contention sooner without the play of Glen Davis (18 points), who capitalized on the Pistons' trapping of Allen with open jumpers.

Davis, replacing Garnett in the lineup, scored half the points in a 12-0 Celtic run to open the second half. Davis was the only Celtic to score over a 6:06 period spanning the halves. And he was the only Celtic to convert in the final 4:45 of the third quarter, his second-chance jumper keeping them within 7 (77-70) with 52 seconds remaining.

Then the Celtics seemed to find a groove. Davis grabbed another offensive rebound to set up a House 3-pointer 25 seconds into the final quarter. Pierce converted a 3-point play and, following a Detroit shot-clock violation, House tied the score, 79-79, with a 3-pointer with 10:20 to go.

House stretched the lead to 4 with 7:29 remaining, but that was the last time the Celtics would convert from the perimeter. Pierce's lefthand drive gave Boston an 89-86 edge with 5:02 to play, but that would be its last field goal until the 1:11 mark, when Kendrick Perkins cut the deficit to 100-94. Hamilton landed a 3-pointer 22 seconds later to effectively clinch the result.

"We're still better defensively than we played, with or without [Garnett] and the guys we were working in," Rivers said. "We were just late a lot. And, you know, they set the pace the entire game and we really felt pace was the key to the game. We rarely got any fast breaks. And, the fact they [had 40 attempts], I thought was even bigger than the shots they made because it allowed them to set their defense almost the entire game."

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