Days of Old

Pistons put up a fight, falter down stretch in loss to Boston

TEAM COLORS

The story of the game in Pistons red, white and blue

– Nobody was really hot in a throwback Pistons-Celtics game where every possession was contested and every rebound produced a scrum, but the Pistons’ big men – Greg Monroe, Charlie Villanueva and Chris Wilcox – managed to hold their own against a Boston frontcourt that starts with two Hall of Fame locks, Shaquille O’Neal and Kevin Garnett. O’Neal and Garnett combined for 23 points and 18 rebounds, kept well under control. Monroe gave the Pistons 13 points and nine boards, including two big fourth-quarter baskets to put the Pistons up 82-78 before Boston closed on an 8-0 run. Wilcox provided nine points and seven boards, Villanueva 11 and eight.

BLUE COLLAR – John Kuester threw a defensive wrinkle at the Celtics – using Tayshaun Prince to guard NBA assists leader Rajon Rondo – that had Boston off-balance offensively all night. The NBA’s best shooting team was under 40 percent well into the second half before finishing at 44.7 percent. Prince used his length to play off of Rondo and limit his penetration, holding him almost six assists under his average. Rondo finished with six points on 3 of 9 shooting and eight assists. But he did grab eight rebounds for the Celtics, four on the offensive end, including the critical one that led to Ray Allen’s tie-breaking jumper with 25 seconds to play.

RED FLAG – For everything the Pistons did well – keep Boston out of the lane, force 18 turnovers, play with poise when the Celtics made fourth-quarter runs early and again at the midway point – they couldn’t make up for Boston’s big edge on the backboards. The Celtics outrebounded the Pistons 47-34 overall and 14-5 on the offensive glass. That led to a 23-12 advantage for Boston in second-chance points. Nine of those 23 came in the fourth quarter.

It could have been 1987 all over again – a young Pistons team coming to Boston and measuring itself against the East’s reigning power, carrying the game for most of the night but leaving the Garden, old or new, soaked in heartache and frustration yet fueled by hope for a brighter future. And wondering where they hide the wretched leprechauns.

The Pistons led most of the game, by eight midway through the fourth, and by four again after the Celtics rallied back twice to tie, but for the want of a few more rebounds they saw the Celtics close on an 8-0 run as the Pistons missed their last six shots over six possessions.

“Couldn’t ask for more from my guys,” said Tracy McGrady, who continued his ascent as a team leader with 36 minutes at the point, dealing seven assists. “We did a hell of a job competing with those guys. This is a tough place to play and what it really came down to was who was going to execute. Them being a veteran club and knowing how to close these types of games out, they did that. On the other hand, we’re still growing. But I like the way we competed tonight.”

The game was tied at 82 with under a minute left when the Pistons got the stop they needed, forcing a miss from Kevin Garnett. But Rajon Rondo knifed inside to grab the offensive rebound and give the Celtics another chance. Ray Allen, bottled up all night – he was 1 of 7 at the time – then drained a tough, turnaround jumper, originally ruled a 3-pointer but changed to a two.

The Pistons got a good look from Rodney Stuckey, a runner in the lane that rattled off the rim, and after a Boston free throw, they got another good shot from Ben Gordon, a driving layup on which John Kuester thought Glen Davis fouled him.

Like all those games before the Bad Boys became the Bad Boys, finally KO’ing the Celtics in the 1988 Eastern Conference finals, the Pistons left muttering about what might have been but at the same time encouraged by the process of measuring themselves against the acknowledged power and finding they belonged in their company.

For one night, at least. Indeed, it was quite likely the Pistons’ best road performance of the season, even in defeat. They came in at 4-17 with wins over the LA Clippers, Sacramento and Toronto twice.

“We did a great job of defending them throughout the night,” Kuester said. “The problem is we had to keep them off the boards. Rondo’s offensive rebound at the end – those little things hurt you. But our players played with a sense of urgency throughout the night, they were poised and I’m very pleased with our effort.”

But just as this was a test for the Pistons, they understand that so, too, will be the last leg of this two-game road trek, when they play at New Jersey and can’t afford to play down to the competition.

“So far, we’re on a roll,” Charlie Villanueva said. “There’s a lot of positives you can take from this game. We have another one in New Jersey – we have to take that.”

The Pistons ebbed and flowed offensively against the Celtics, who remain an elite defensive team, but held up well consistently on defense. They held the NBA’s top shooting team – the only one making better than half their shots – to 42 percent. It was the rebounding – specifically, Boston’s four offensive boards in the fourth quarter – that undermined otherwise superb team defense.

“Very encouraging for my guys,” McGrady said. “We competed with the best team in the East and one of the better teams in the league on their home court. If we can give this type of effort night in and night out, we’re going to give ourselves a chance. We’ve just got to learn how to close out games and execute down the stretch.”