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Second-half lapses lead to humbling loss for Celtics

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Celtics forward Amir Johnson rattled the rim with a dunk over Pistons guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in the first quarter.Barry Chin/Globe Staff
Pistons 99
Celtics 94

As the season nears the midway point, the Eastern Conference standings remain crowded and even confusing. Entering their game on Wednesday night, the Celtics and Pistons were among six teams clustered in the middle with either 15 or 16 losses. And Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said when teams in this logjam actually face each other, it offers an excellent opportunity.

"It's sort of a double hit," Van Gundy said, "if you can get a win and hand someone else a loss."

On Wednesday night, the Pistons got their double hit, as they overcame a 13-point deficit and used a 33-point fourth quarter to snag a 99-94 win at TD Garden.


For the Celtics, this was one of the more humbling losses of the season. For so much of the night, the Pistons were in disarray. Their star center, Andre Drummond, was on the bench with foul trouble. Their free throws were clanging off the rim. Their players were colliding and their passes were careening out of bounds.

The Celtics were not especially crisp, and yet with three minutes left in the third quarter they still had a seemingly comfortable 13-point lead. But momentum shifted suddenly, and the Celtics appeared almost dazed.

"The game was changed based on their physicality in the second half," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "It seemed like every physical play went their way, especially in the fourth quarter. They were great on the boards, they were physical in their drives. Their bodies hit our bodies, we fell back. I didn't think it was hard to really see, one team was clearly outmanning the other at that time, and it's a tough time to be outmanned."

With 58.2 seconds left in the game, Pistons rookie Stanley Johnson hit a 3-pointer from the left corner to give his team a 96-92 lead.


Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas was fouled on a 3-point attempt at the other end and made two of three free throws. Thomas, a 90-percent free throw shooter, missed four foul shots.

Aron Baynes stretched Detroit's lead to 4 points with a pair of free throws, and then Kelly Olynyk missed a 3-pointer and the Pistons gathered a rebound. The home crowd that had been buzzing for long stretches was suddenly silent.

In the Celtics locker room afterward, signs of frustration were evident. Thomas once again voiced some displeasure with the lack of a set rotation. Forward David Lee, after not playing for his second consecutive game, acknowledged that Stevens told him he had been at least temporarily removed from the regular rotation.

Mostly, though, the Celtics were puzzled by their own lack of physicality. They did not understand how another team could march into their arena and have their way with them when the game reached its critical stage.

The Celtics shot just 33.3 percent from the field in the final period and missed 4 of 8 free throw attempts. The Pistons, meanwhile, cleaned up their earlier gaffes and made 11 of their last 20 shots.

"We said to ourselves we can't just go out and think we're going to beat every team," Celtics forward Amir Johnson said. "We've got to play a full game, which the coach preaches and we preach to each other.''

Thomas struggled through one of his worst shooting nights of the season, going 6 for 20 from the field for 22 points. He started to redeem himself in the final minutes, scoring Boston's final 15 points, but it was too late.


"It just was one of those nights where nothing would fall, whether it be layups, mid-range shots, 3-pointers, or even free throws," he said. "I usually don't ever miss free throws, so I just knew when those free throws weren't going in it was just — I mean, it's 82 games, there's going to be nights like that."

Drummond, the league's leading rebounder, was slowed by foul trouble and was mostly ineffective when he was on the floor. But he made all three of his fourth-quarter shot attempts to finish with 13 points and a season-low five rebounds.

The Celtics started quickly. With 3.2 seconds left in the first period, Jared Sullinger fired a long inbounds pass to Olynyk, whose 3-pointer gave Boston a 33-24 lead.

The Celtics shot 60.9 percent from the field in the opening quarter and outrebounded the Pistons, who rank second in the league in that category, 12-7.

The Celtics led by as many as 10 points in the second period, but Pistons guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who torched the Celtics for a career-high 31 points in Detroit's win on Dec. 16, ignited his team again.

He drained three 3-pointers over a stretch of just 1 minute and 6 seconds, the last making it 47-46 with 3:31 left. But the Celtics closed the period with an 8-2 burst to take a 55-48 halftime lead.


Drummond picked up his fourth foul midway through the third period and went back to the bench, and his teammates on the court were unorganized. The Pistons shot 31.6 percent from the field in the period and committed seven turnovers. But the Celtics were unable to extend their lead because their shooting was just as bad. Boston was 5 of 22 in the period and went to the fourth quarter ahead 75-66.

The Pistons started the final period with a 6-0 flurry, and with 6:00 left, Reggie Jackson hit a floater to give them their first lead, 83-82. Jackson then hit a high-arcing shot from the free throw line to give the Pistons their biggest advantage, 88-82.

Thomas, who had been just 2 of 16 from the field, made a layup and a 3-pointer and then a tough, driving layup to put the Celtics back in front, 89-88. But Jackson, the former Boston College star, drilled a 3-pointer and then hit a pair of free throws to make it 93-89. And the Celtics were unable to rally.

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Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsback@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.