The Celtics’ comeback from a 21-point deficit against the Pistons on Friday was slow and steady. But when Boston pushed ahead by 5 points with just over four minutes left, it looked like the superior team had done enough to flick away a mostly forgettable night and move on to the next one.
The problem was that after Jayson Tatum hit a 3-pointer at the 4:15 mark, Boston never scored again, as one open look after another thudded off the rim, and the Pistons, whose execution down the stretch was hardly flawless, escaped with a surprising 96-93 win.
Tatum had 28 points and Jaylen Brown added 25 for Boston, but their nights will be remembered for the points that never came.
Observations from the game:
▪ The Celtics’ execution down the stretch was not terrible. They mostly generated open looks. But the common theme was that they settled for long jump shots — sometimes by average shooters — rather than driving to the rim. Here’s a look at the possessions following Tatum’s last made basket that gave Boston a 93-88 lead.
3:11 left, Celtics lead 93-90: Tatum had just made two long jumpers in a row before sizing up Josh Jackson. The Pistons forward contested the shot half-heartedly, perhaps deflated by the lead his team had just blown, but Tatum missed.
2:24, Celtics 93-90: Brown found himself guarded by lumbering center Mason Plumlee, a matchup Boston tried to exploit multiple times in the final minutes. Brown initially pulled back to attack Plumlee with a full head of steam, and he went past him. He appeared to have a clear lane to the hoop, especially as help defender Saddiq Bey shaded toward Tatum in the corner. But Brown kicked a pass to Marcus Smart, whose wide-open 3-pointer was an airball.
1:50, Celtics 93-90: Tatum drove into the paint, where good things had happened, but this time was swarmed by three players. He had a brief window for one of his floaters, but instead kicked a pass to Grant Williams, who was wide open in the corner. Again, it’s hard to argue with wide-open shots, but it’s also true that Williams is exactly who Detroit wanted to see shooting. The shot missed.
1:25, Celtics 93-92: Tatum created separation and had a clean look at a 19-footer that was off.
1:02, Pistons 94-93: Brown sized up the Plumlee matchup again. He fired a pass to Smart at the top of the key before getting it right back with a fresh dribble, but then he let Plumlee off the hook by firing a 3-pointer. The Celtics got the offensive rebound but Williams missed a 13-footer.
0:27, Pistons 94-93: Smart trailed the break and stepped into a 3-pointer that missed. It was an open shot, but once again was not taken by a preferred shooter.
:15.7, Pistons 95-93: This time Smart found a preferred shooter, Tatum, wide open in the right corner. The Celtics couldn’t ask for anything more than this, except for the ball to go in. It did not. Daniel Theis gathered the offensive rebound and fed Smart, who decided it was time to attack, but he never really got his balance and ended up with a tough lefthanded hook shot.
“I tried to get to the line, to a spot where I make them,” Smart said, “and the ball just doesn’t go in.”
1.2, Pistons 96-93: Now the Celtics needed a 3-pointer. Brown curled off a screen and got a good look at one from the right arc, but it had the same fate as the shots that preceded it over the past four minutes. Suddenly the Celtics, who had so many chances to squeeze out this win, were all out of them.
▪ With Tristan Thompson once again available, the Celtics went back to the two-big starting lineup featuring him and Theis. The early returns haven’t been great, and the starters played better against the Grizzlies on Wednesday when point guard Jeff Teague replaced Thompson, but that could have been due to the fact that they were playing the undermanned Grizzlies. The Pistons, without Blake Griffin, are not very good either, though, and the results were not good.
Theis said this week that he is still adjusting to playing the power forward position at both ends of the floor. Also, it has not helped matters that his outside shot is not falling. Don’t be surprised if coach Brad Stevens gives the Teague lineup another look soon. It spaces the floor more and opens up driving lanes for Tatum and Brown.
▪ Having said that, Boston’s first-quarter issues went well beyond having two big guys out there at the same time. The Celtics appeared disconnected and uninterested, as the Pistons attacked for paint baskets at one end and the Celtics’ offense kicked the ball away at the other. Boston was 5 for 19 with seven turnovers in the first quarter.
“You are always wondering why you don’t start well,” Stevens said. “There are two teams playing and they obviously started well so that was probably a large part of it. I thought the most obvious sign of it was our transition running offensively. It bled into the rest of the game. I just didn’t think we ran hard.”
▪ Smart said that some struggles were to be expected at the start of this season. The Celtics are missing two rotation players, they had a brief training camp, and they welcomed several new players to the fold.
“We didn’t expect it to be this bad,” he said. “But we expected to have some ups and downs. Lot of curveballs thrown our way with a lot of young guys, lot of new guys. But it’s still not an excuse. A lot of us have been here for a longer period of time. We know the system, we know what Brad wants, and we have to go out there and do it.”
▪ Before the game Stevens praised Carsen Edwards for his solid play in mop-up duty during Wednesday’s win over Memphis. That performance earned him a rare first-quarter chance as Stevens looked for an offensive spark. Edwards was unable to take advantage, though, as he missed both of his shots and did nothing to get on the stat sheet during his four minutes other than commit a foul.
▪ We’re not even two weeks into the season, but as Pistons rookie Bey, the 19th pick of the draft, poured in five of eight 3-pointers, it was a bit glaring as Celtics rookie Aaron Nesmith, the 14th pick, remained on the bench for Boston.
▪ Celtics center Robert Williams left the game with nine minutes left in the fourth quarter after appearing to knock knees during a scramble for a loose ball. Stevens said after the game that he was available to return.