Kevin Garnett might not be having an All-Star season. But the Celtics’ 98-88 loss to Detroit last night at TD Garden provided a strong indication of how much the team relies on Garnett’s defending and rebounding.
Garnett (hip pointer) was a late scratch - “as late a scratch as we’ve had,’’ coach Doc Rivers said - and missed his first game of the season.
And, though Rajon Rondo ignited the offense, scoring a career-high 35 points, the Celtics failed to get Ray Allen and Paul Pierce (10 points each) into the flow of the game.
The result was the Celtics’ Big Three was reduced to a nonfactor, leaving much of the offensive output to Rondo and Chris Wilcox (17 points, 9 rebounds).
The outcome concluded a disappointing run of home games. The Celtics (15-13), who begin a five-game road stretch at Chicago tonight, have an 11-8 home record.
“That part doesn’t bother me at all,’’ Rivers said of the road trip.
“The road/home schedule hasn’t, never did. I think we’re really good on the road. I think, like I’ve said, so far we’ve proven we can beat anybody and lose to anybody. That’s the maddening part. What we haven’t proven is that we can be a consistent basketball team and that’s where we have to get to.’’
The Celtics actually seemed to be performing well enough to win the game. They were on the verge of pulling away several times before Detroit rallied.
Allen’s free throw gave the Celtics a 45-38 lead with 2:32 to go in the first half. The Celtics had 5-point advantages in the second half. But after a Wilcox jumper made it 72-67 with 1:56 remaining in the third quarter, Boston faltered.
The Pistons went on a 20-4 run over a 5:42 period spanning the final quarters, Ben Gordon’s 3-pointer increasing their lead to 87-76 with 7:52 left in the game. Gordon converted three 3-pointers over 2:38 of the rally.
The Celtics could not recover.
In the final minutes, the Celtics started causing shot-clock violations, getting to loose balls, and grabbing key defensive rebounds.
But it was too late.
“Offensively, I didn’t like the way we played the whole night - wasn’t a lot of movement,’’ Rivers said. “I like Rondo being aggressive but, on the other hand, we didn’t get a lot of ball movement. But this wasn’t lost on offense. Defensively, you give up 98 points to a team that is struggling right now scoring.’’
Though the Celtics were within 1 point of the lead early in the final quarter, they had been outmaneuvered by a combination of the Pistons’ double-teaming both Allen and Pierce, plus their own failure to limit penetration by Detroit’s guards, led by Rodney Stuckey (25 points).
And that left the Celtics unable to stem a Piston rally.
Garnett’s ability to cover for defensive mistakes, gambles, and overplays might have compensated for the lack of perimeter defending.
And the absence of Brandon Bass (knee) and Garnett deprived the Celtics of a power forward popping out for jumpers, the Pistons capitalizing with the doubling of Allen and Pierce.
Pierce seemed to be getting untracked as he hit a free throw to cut the Celtics’ deficit to 75-74 with 10:53 remaining in the game. Pierce then scored off an inbounds play to get the Celtics within 78-76 with 9:59 to go.
But Jason Maxiell converted a free throw, then Gordon answered an Allen 3-point miss with a successful 3-pointer. Maxiell made another foul shot. Damien Wilkins hit the first of two free throws, and the Pistons rebounded his miss, leading to another Gordon (22 points) 3-pointer and that 87-76 edge.
“We had our bench in,’’ Rivers said. “We made some bonehead plays. We leave Ben Gordon to trap, we rotate to Ben Wallace out to the 3-point line, we give up an offensive rebound on a free throw. Those three possessions, to me, changed the game. It went from a 2-point game to an 8-point game. And, to me, give a team that’s struggling for wins life, they’ll beat you. And that’s what happened.
“I thought we had a chance for a big lead in the first quarter. And I thought we had it going. But we let up on defense. We were gambling, you know, you could just see it. At halftime I was not very comfortable where the game was going to go. I told our staff we’re going to have to dig this one out. We should be up 12-14, it’s a 2-point game, we’re going to have to earn this one.
“You know, we’re going through a lot of stuff with all the injuries and stuff, and so are other teams. And, I just think it’s going to be this type of year. I keep saying it - it’s going to be up and down and every time it looks like we’re about to take off and play well, we do this. And I’m hoping at some point this year it’ll keep doing this and then we’ll take off. But we haven’t done that.
“There are signs that you can, but we just haven’t followed through on it.’’