The Celtics returned from their two-game road trip dissatisfied but not discouraged. Yes, they’d lost to the Thunder and Spurs, but most teams go on the road and lose to the Thunder and Spurs.
And due to tiebreaker scenarios, the Celtics actually advanced from ninth place to eighth in the conference standings despite those losses. So they returned home Sunday with hope for a new beginning, a new spark.
Of the remaining teams on the Celtics’ schedule only the lowly Knicks have a worse record than the Pistons. So Sunday’s game against Detroit was one that a real playoff team would win. Of course, it remains unclear if the Celtics are a real playoff team, and in this game, they did not look like one.
Boston shot 36.2 percent from the floor and coughed up a 10-point second-half lead before falling to the Pistons in overtime, 105-97.
“This was a game that we had to win, that we needed to win,” forward Gerald Wallace said. “They understand we gave this game away.”
The Celtics had a chance to win in regulation. The score was tied at 88 with 17.3 seconds left when Boston called timeout and drew up a play for Evan Turner.
With players on both benches and the fans at TD Garden standing, Turner dribbled just inside midcourt until making his move with about five seconds left. He took three hard dribbles toward the right baseline, and Kelly Olynyk slid over to disrupt Reggie Jackson’s defense, if only slightly.
Turner rose to take the shot, but the ball slipped out of his hands. The chance slipped away.
“If he gets that shot off, that’s his shot,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “I felt good about it, to be honest.”
Turner said he knew that Jackson would try to contest his jump shot, so he was focused on putting more arc on it than usual.
“I’ve done that shot a million times, and unfortunately the ball slipped,” he said. “And from there, we couldn’t regroup.”
The Pistons started overtime with a 10-2 burst, and the Celtics had no answer. In the extra session, Boston missed all four of its 3-point attempts and gathered just one rebound.
The Celtics have spent so much of this season filling gaps because of injuries, trades, and constant change. Sunday was no different.
Point guard Isaiah Thomas missed his seventh consecutive game because of a bruised lower back, although the team had known for a while that he would not play. The more sudden void came after guard Marcus Smart was suspended by the NBA for striking Spurs forward Matt Bonner in the groin Friday.
The Celtics might have lost this game with Smart, and they had several chances to win it without him, but his absence was not lost on teammates.
“Obviously, as a team, he owes us one,” Turner said.
In the locker room afterward, Wallace, one of the few true veterans on this youthful roster, told teammates that this loss was unacceptable. Although Wallace averages just 8.4 minutes per game, the players respect his voice and perspective.
“We don’t have any disrespect toward Detroit, but this is a game we’re supposed to win,” Wallace told reporters. “We’ve got to be more serious. Giving away games like this or losing games like this, we don’t have that long of a schedule to make up games.”
And sure enough, as the Celtics were leaving TD Garden, the Hornets were wrapping up a victory over the Timberwolves that sent them past Boston and into eighth place in the Eastern Conference standings.
The Celtics and Pacers are now tied for ninth at 30-39, and Brooklyn is just a half-game back. Boston gets a quick chance at redemption, visiting the Nets on Monday night.
“That’s the good thing with the NBA,” forward Jonas Jerebko said. “We’re jumping on a flight.”
On Sunday, Turner finished with 23 points, 8 assists, and 6 rebounds, but he probably will remember the shot he missed more than the 10 he made.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope had 27 points and eight rebounds for the Pistons, and Andre Drummond added 18 points and 22 rebounds despite going just 2 for 11 from the free throw line.
Stevens said that in the second half, the Celtics were dribbling too much and not playing aggressively. They clearly missed Smart, who returns Monday, and Thomas, whose return remains unclear.
Nevertheless, there was an opportunity to take a step forward without both of those players, and the Celtics were unable to do it.
“These are the ones that hurt,” forward Jae Crowder said.