The most sensible emotion after the Celtics snapped their five-game losing streak Wednesday night was rejoicing, regardless of how laborious their victory over the Detroit Pistons eventually became.
The Celtics not only wasted another fourth-quarter lead against the Pistons, they wilted within mere minutes as Greg Monroe singlehandedly erased an 11-point deficit in the final 3:48 of regulation with an array of jump hooks and layups against single coverage.
The bright spot for the Celtics is that they responded by quickly seizing another one in overtime. And this time, with Jared Sullinger leading the way, they held on for a 109-102 victory at TD Garden.
Sullinger scored 10 points in OT, emerging as the Celtics’ go-to guy as coach Brad Stevens was desperate to find a playmaker in the waning minutes. Giving up an 11-point lead to a team that had lost nine straight games and was in deeper turmoil cannot be overlooked, but Stevens and his players viewed it differently.
“I thought we did a lot of things well but I didn’t think we played exceptionally well,” Stevens said. “In a lot of our losses we played better. I like [Wednesday] a lot better than all of them. But we still have to go back and re-evaluate it and look at it in reality and try to get better from it and see if we can’t improve.
“I’m excited for the guys that they gutted one out when it kind of teeter-tottered back and forth of not going their way.”
The game was mistake-filled from the start with neither team able to execute its offense — and when they did, a badly missed shot resulted. The teams combined for 31 made field goals and 92 misses in the first half. The Celtics began to pull away early in the fourth, sparked by a resurgent Kelly Olynyk and an aggressive Jeff Green.
Green made two free throws with 3:28 left for an 84-73 lead and a Garden crowd that had been silent most of the night was excited but cautious. Detroit is an extremely flawed team but the Pistons held a sizable advantage in the paint with the skilled Monroe and mammoth Andre Drummond gobbling up rebounds and scoring layups.
Monroe scored 11 consecutive points in 2:21 to slice the Celtics’ lead to 86-84, and anxiety abounded. Drummond made one free throw to cut the deficit to 1 before Evan Turner drained two free throws with 19.1 seconds left.
The Celtics needed just one defensive stop and the Pistons used a perfect inbounds play to create space for veteran Caron Butler, who tied the game with an open 3-pointer. Green attempted to win the game with a floater that was swatted by Drummond, forcing the extra frame.
What could have been more demoralizing than Tuesday night’s blown 23-point lead against the Hawks was saved by some hot shooting from Sullinger, who began the overtime with a 3-pointer, followed by a 3 from Green and then a jumper from Turner.
The next 3:20 was spent trying to avoid ineptitude as the Pistons got to within 104-102 after a Kentavious Caldwell-Pope 3-pointer.
Green and Sullinger finished the game with free throws. Sullinger finished with 14 points, warming up after a difficult regulation.
“We’re getting closer to closing out a game in the fourth quarter,” he said. “We had to use overtime — that extra five minutes, it helped big time — but we’re getting better. It feels awesome. Everybody’s in a smiling mood, Gerald [Wallace] is actually smiling, so that’s a plus.”
The players said they realize the season still has 66 games left, and there’s time to atone for some of these difficult losses. Before the game, Stevens said the team’s go-to guy will have to come by committee. Green scored 32 points on 8-for-22 shooting with six 3-pointers.
After the Celtics completely ignored Green in the second half against the Hawks, something that wasn’t lost on Green or Stevens, there was an added emphasis to pound the ball in the paint instead of settling for long jumpers. Green and Olynyk took turns slashing to the basket and the ball movement was crisper than in previous weeks.
“We really didn’t struggle in the fourth [quarter], we scored some points in this game but we also gave up some points,” guard Rajon Rondo said. “But we’re going to continue to chug at it. We did a great job of closing out the game entirely even though it took longer than 48. We still got the job done.”
The Celtics refused to consider the opponent or the fact that the Pistons scored 56 points in the paint and got 29 points from Monroe in 32 minutes. Their streak of meltdowns is over.
“It was good, we still have lots to improve on down the stretch to hold that, but the team came back and the dam was getting hit and getting hit but didn’t break,” Olynyk said. “We played well in overtime. We got some stops when we needed to and made some big shots.