DETROIT — The Celtics could have used this four-day trip to Detroit as a means to stacking a couple of victories and building cohesion in what has been a scattered first 10 days for the club.
Instead, they walked into Little Caesars Arena, looked down on the banged up Pistons, and played their first stretch of basketball of the season. And right when it appeared they would prevail because of talent and late-arriving focus, they were perhaps punished for their lackadaisical start with a poor finish.
The Celtics have the talent to beat most NBA teams; even without Kemba Walker, but for some reason they play with a disturbing arrogance at times.
Friday’s 96-93 loss was embarrassing because the Pistons were winless, without their most accomplished player, and appeared content to allow the Celtics to catch and pass them. And yet, the Celtics bested even their own early ineptitude, missing their final 10 shots and going scoreless for the final 4:15.
There’s plenty of blame to be handed around. There was the inability to get consistent defensive stops in the final minutes, including allowing Derrick Rose to essentially walk to the rim for the go-ahead layup.
You could blame Marcus Smart if you’d like. He missed two key free throws and also a questionable pull-up 3-pointer with the Celtics down 2 with 27 seconds left. But that’s what Smart does. He takes those fearless shots and this one likely would have won the game. He had another chance to tie it but missed a point-blank layup with 5.6 seconds left.
It was apparent then the Celtics didn’t deserve to win the game, regardless of how many advantageous positions coach Brad Stevens put them in to win. Jaylen Brown missed an open three in the final seconds. Jayson Tatum missed a potential go-ahead corner three.
Nothing was good enough.
Yet, the Celtics really lost this game in the first quarter, when they trailed, 23-5, and then 35-14 early in the second period. Detroit played harder and with more fortitude. The Pistons are a bunch of rookies and youngsters surrounding Jerami Grant, who signed with Detroit for an opportunity to flourish offensively. He burned the Celtics for 18 first-half points as Stevens’s insistence on sticking with that double-big lineup matched up Grant against an overmatched Daniel Theis.
“We gotta start the game better and set the tone for the rest of the team,” Tatum said. “The older guys, that’s on us. The second half, we played with a lot more purpose and played a lot tougher and gave ourselves a chance to win. But we missed a lot of good looks towards the end of the game.”
What’s demoralizing is the Celtics finally responded to the challenge, imposed their will, held the Pistons to 28 percent shooting in the second half, and yet still slipped defensively. Villanova rookie Saddiq Bey, whom many think should have been in Celtics green, hit four 3-pointers in the second half. It’s as if the Celtics didn’t recognize his shooting ability, or maybe it was a sign of disrespect. Bey kept the Pistons in the game with his shooting.
The Celtics have lost three times this season, an understandable blowout loss to the Brooklyn Nets, the 1-point defeat in Indiana when Tatum settled for a contested 3-pointer and this, a game they should truly regret losing because it didn’t have to happen.
“Yeah, this is a tough one, especially the way we started,” Tatum said. “We really dug ourselves in a hole, which we came back and gave ourselves a chance. But you gotta play both halves and start better.”
With their two best players being so painfully young in superstar years, the Celtics are going to struggle at times with consistency. Two nights after scoring a career-high 42 points, Jaylen Brown went scoreless in 11 first-period minutes.
In the second half, Tatum and Brown were the best players on the floor. The Celtics fed off that energy and played with more passion. But basketball generally doesn’t reward teams who play good halves or show up most of the time.
Detroit was rewarded because it wanted to win more. The Pistons were winless. They are an afterthought here in Detroit, a town that’s struggled mightily with its sports teams in the past decade. With Blake Griffin out (concussion protocol), they were vulnerable but their youngsters embarrassed the Celtics with their effort in the opening period.
Blame the empty arenas for lack of energy or the shortened offseason or injuries, but the Celtics have to find a way to become more consistent. That’s what these two games in Detroit were supposed to produce, a chance to play good ball against a bad team and collect momentum and wins. Now the goal is to salvage a split Sunday afternoon and learn from this experience. Hopefully for the Celtics, these types of performances will become the rare exception because they are truly better than this.
“That’s the NBA, it’s not of matter of whether you can do it once, it’s whether you can do it over and over again,” said Brown, who finished with 25 points. “As we have young guys who are entering the league, that’s what we try to tell them what the league is about. It’s about being consistent. Continuing to make the effort, continuing to adjust will be key for us but I think we’ll be fine down the road.”