It’s difficult to really lay out the Celtics when they have been playing so well. The hope after Wednesday’s 112-111 loss to the lowly Pistons is that they learn that they can’t always rely on their talent to win. They strayed away from that habit over the past few weeks, but it returned against Detroit.
Boston had a golden opportunity to end its first half on a 10-game winning streak, with the players heading on their respective vacations knowing they had played like the best team in the NBA for the past two-plus weeks.
They remain one of the most impressive teams in the league. They’ve spent this month rising in the Eastern Conference, moving out of the play-in spots and vying for potential home-court advantage in the first round.
This loss doesn’t ruin that good work, but it does slow the momentum slightly because the Celtics lost to an inferior team. The Pistons played well. They shot 56 percent and hit 10 threes in the second half. They bullied the Celtics on the boards, turning this into a slugfest — Jayson Tatum started pressing, trying to make plays and instead committing turnovers.
Tatum delivered more consitently down the stretch but missed a step-back 20-footer in the final seconds that would have won the game. Instead, the Celtics head to their sunny destinations with some disappointment, especially after such an impressive win Tuesday at Philadelphia.
This loss doesn’t erase that win, but it leaves the Celtics with a sliver of doubt. Detroit entered with a definitive game plan: play physical and crash the boards, knowing more shot opportunities would lead to more baskets.
The Pistons won because they attempted 16 more shots than the Celtics, punished any dribble penetration with physicality, and made some critical baskets.
“It definitely leaves a bad taste in your mouth going into the break,” said forward Jaylen Brown, who led Boston with 31 points. “They came ready to play and made some tough baskets down the stretch. They were the most deserving team tonight.”
The Celtics were bitten by a bug that’s afflicted many top teams this season. They relaxed at home and lost inexplicably to a downtrodden team. That can be written off if the Celtics use this as fuel and motivation for their Feb. 24 return against the Brooklyn Nets.
The Celtics have 22 games left and ample opportunity to grab one of the top four seeds in the East. They have found a cohesive and productive style of play and, until Wednesday, showed that killer instinct and ability to close out games down the stretch.
Wednesday could be blamed on some uncanny shot-making by the Pistons. Saddiq Bey, whom the Celtics passed on in the 2020 draft, made a seemingly impossible step-back 3-pointer to beat the shot clock and Jerami Grant fired a line-drive triple that struck front rim and then crawled over into the basket.
“There was a lot of things we could have controlled and the second-chance points hurt us, little things like that kept adding up,” forward Al Horford said. “[We’re] not happy [now] but looking at it from a different way, we should obviously take some time off and there’s going to be an edge to us coming back. We’ve been playing good basketball, but coming back we understand we have to hold that standard and continue to play at a high level.”
Wednesday is an indication that the Celtics are hardly a finished product. They are a flawed team, especially in close games. Marcus Smart (ankle) and Robert Williams (calf) were out and that did affect the rotations, but the Celtics were more than equipped to win despite that.
It’s time for the Celtics to take themselves seriously as an Eastern Conference contender.
“Definitely come back with an even more focused and aggressive mentality to get ready for the next game leading up to the playoffs,” Brown said. “That’s where we want to be. I am looking forward to being a better version of Jaylen Brown going into the break. We’ve got to focus on the positives but learn from the negatives and stay the course.”
The encouraging news is the Celtics played their way back into the race in the East with this nine-game winning streak, ridding themselves of some locker room disruptions and players who weren’t good fits and replacing them with two players – Derrick White and Daniel Theis – who know their roles and will improve as they absorb the system.
So there’s every reason to be encouraged for the final stretch, regardless of what happened Wednesday. But there’s good that can come from this if the Celtics approach this correctly. They should be angry and disappointed because the chance was there to take a 10-game winning streak into the break.
Instead, coach Ime Udoka will spend his break going over game tape, detailing what went wrong and realizing that other teams will take a page from Detroit coach Dwane Casey and use physicality to offset the Celtics’ ball-moving offense. The Celtics need a break, but in a few days, it’s time to ramp up for what could be a memorable season-ending stretch and playoff run.