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Pistons 92, Celtics 86

Pistons deal blow to Celtics

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / January 21, 2010

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - This is when questions start being asked.

How does a team with championship ambitions let a 12-point lead evaporate? How does it commit 19 turnovers, including seven in the third quarter? How does it choke the life out of a struggling and ailing Pistons team for the first 12 minutes, and slowly let it regain life over the next 36?

How do the Celtics lose, 92-86, to that team when star free agent acquisition and known Celtics killer Ben Gordon is hobbled by a groin injury, when one of the last remaining pieces on its 2004 championship, Tayshaun Prince, is nursing a knee injury, and when its best shooter is just returning after sitting out a game with a stomach ailment?

It’s the point when unstable teams start pointing fingers.

“They’re frustrated in there,’’ said coach Doc Rivers. “And I said, ‘It’s great to be frustrated, but we’ve got to do something about it.’ ’’

It’s a point the Celtics, now losers of five of their last seven, have not faced in the rejuvenated era that started two-plus seasons ago. It’s the point at which they now find themselves, having dropped to 27-13 by compounding injuries with inconsistency and now simmering frustration.

“These are problems you shouldn’t have when you have the goals that we have,’’ Rivers said. “I know it’s the dog days and everybody’s going through stuff right now, but we’re self-imposing our [issues] right now.’’

The common thread in the Celtics’ recent downturn has been third-quarter letdowns, and last night was no different.

After seemingly burying themselves in the first quarter by committing 10 turnovers that the Celtics turned into 15 points, the Pistons, as desperate as they were depleted, fought back in the third behind Rodney Stuckey’s all-around play (27 points, 11 rebounds, 6 assists) and Jason Maxiell’s shooting (12 points) and defense (two steals and a block).

Richard Hamilton (12 points, eight assists) returned to the Detroit lineup after missing Monday’s loss to New York with an upset stomach, and Ray Allen spent so much time chasing him on defense that he was ineffective on offense (8 points on 3-of-10 shooting).

The Pistons used the Celtics’ sloppy third quarter to climb back into the game, then dealt Boston a body blow with a 13-0 fourth-quarter run that started with a bucket down low from Charlie Villanueva and also included Villanueva swirling in a 3-pointer in front of the Celtics’ bench. Villanueva then sealed the game with another three with 55.1 seconds remaining.

The Celtics’ offense went numb after the break, mustering just 30 second-half points on 9-of-30 shooting.

“We’re usually a team that can come out when we have a good lead at halftime and put teams away, and we just haven’t been doing that,’’ said Paul Pierce, who scored 21 points, but only 4 after the first quarter. “We start playing with fire, letting teams back in the game, and then we burn ourselves once they get confidence, tie the game, and take the lead. We can’t continue to do this. We’ve got to start building something, understanding what we’re doing wrong and take care of it.’’

After flirting with a triple-double (21 points, 8 rebounds, and 7 assists against just 1 turnover), Rajon Rondo was as much at a loss to explain the third quarter as anyone.

“We knew it at halftime,’’ he said. “We knew what we were up against. We were up against ourselves. It wasn’t necessarily them guys trying to get a jump on us or they were injury-prone or it was a dogfight, we were just playing against ourselves from the start.’’

What the Celtics are battling, said Rivers, is a faulty mind-set.

“I think we think we’re better than what we are,’’ he said. “We get a lead and we feel like we can just put it on cruise. In the NBA you can’t do that, and we’ve never done that and that’s what’s troubling to me. But it’s clear right now when we get a lead, we go to individual ball, guys trying to get numbers and just loss of focus.’’

In the process of trying to find answers for their recent struggles, the refrain inside the Celtics’ locker room was that everyone needed to aim the questions at themselves.

“Sometimes after losses everybody tends to have a reason why we lost instead of we just lost the game,’’ said Kendrick Perkins (8 points, 4 rebounds, 4 turnovers). “If everybody looked at themselves in the mirror, it’d pretty much take care of itself. It can’t be no pointing the finger.’’

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