Out of Gas

Pistons can’t keep up when Celtics turn up the heat in 2nd half

TEAM COLORS

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

– Boston pulled away in the third quarter, expanding a one-point lead to 16, when the Celtics made 14 of 19 shots in the quarter. Through three quarters, Boston shot 67 percent, making 32 of 48 shots, as the Pistons’ season-long defensive struggles continued. The Pistons rank last in the league in defensive field-goal percentage at .485. The league average is .458 and the Celtics are at .434.

BLUE COLLAR – Rajon Rondo didn’t have one of his better games. He shot just 2 of 8 and committed five turnovers. But Rondo’s 14 assists were instrumental to Boston’s 64 percent shooting, never more so than in the third quarter when he racked up seven assists as the Celtics outscored the Pistons 33-18 and shot a blistering 73.7 percent and hurt the Pistons badly in transition.

RED FLAG – Rodney Stuckey didn’t get off the bench after serving as Will Bynum’s backup Friday night against Chicago on a night Tracy McGrady sat out with tired legs. McGrady returned and served as backup point guard. John Kuester said Stuckey’s benching was an “internal” matter. Without Stuckey, the Pistons needed some punch from their shooting guards, but both Rip Hamilton (6 of 15) and Ben Gordon (1 of 6) struggled in combining for 16 points.

The Pistons last visited Boston for Game 42, the start of the season’s second half, and though they lost that night, they left the TD Garden feeling as optimistic about their season as they had since its start.

They were coming off an impressive home win over Dallas and made the Celtics go to their passing gear that night of Jan. 19, when they lost by four points after leading deep into the fourth quarter.

Those good feelings have long since evaporated. This time the Pistons came to Boston fresh off of a Friday loss to Chicago that made official what has seemed inevitable for weeks: They would not participate in the playoffs for the second straight year after having the NBA’s third-longest active streak of postseason participation, behind only San Antonio and Dallas, snapped in the 2009-10 season.

The Pistons played a spirited first half, but when Boston went to that passing gear in the third quarter the Pistons didn’t have a lot of fight left in them in Game 76 with a season’s worth of disappointments behind them.

“It’s tough, especially against a team like this,” Will Bynum said after drawing his second straight start and leading the Pistons with 20 points on a night Rodney Stuckey wouldn’t play. “You have to answer back right away and defensively we have to be more on the same page. We weren’t on the same page tonight and they took advantage of it.”

The Pistons lost for the sixth time in their last seven games, a stretch where they’ve played competitively but been undone by brief bad stretches, like the last few minutes of Friday’s first quarter when the Bulls closed with a 10-0 run. The 11-point margin of defeat was their largest in that span, but losing close doesn’t do much to buoy the spirits in April.

“In spurts, our energy was outstanding,” John Kuester said. “The one thing I was disappointed with was I didn’t think we were communicating on the floor the way we have. You’ve got to do that on the road when you’re playing a team of their caliber. Transitionally, we can’t give them easy opportunities and we did during that (third-quarter) spurt.”

Kuester said the decision to not play Stuckey was an internal matter. “This is a growing process,” he said, “and in that growing process, he had a slight setback.”

The Celtics suffered a slight setback of their own, despite the win as they fight for playoff position with Miami behind Chicago for the East’s No. 2 seed.

They came into the game without the feeling of invincibility they had back in January, when they took a 31-9 record into the game. They’d lost eight of their last 14, but were buoyed by the prospect of Shaquille O’Neal’s return. Shaq came on midway through the first quarter after having missed 27 games with a sore Achilles don/heel.

He looked spry, giving Boston six quick points, but on the first possession of the second quarter, he limped badly to the bench and went to the locker room with what the Celtics later called a strained calf muscle. That’s particularly worrisome with the playoffs less than two weeks away and O’Neal’s level of conditioning already a concern.

The Pistons were sharp offensively in taking a 29-26 lead after one quarter, but an all-bench unit sputtered in the second quarter until the last few minutes. After Boston took a 10-point lead with an 11-0 run, the Pistons closed the half with a 9-0 run to close within a point.

But when the Celtics opened the lead back to double digits with four minutes left in the third quarter, the Pistons didn’t stop the bleeding this time until it reached 18 early in the fourth quarter. They got it back to nine on two occasions in the fourth quarter, but the fight they needed to really mount a comeback was squeezed out of them in the grinding weeks that pushed them out of playoff contention.

“It was a game of spurts and they’re a veteran team that understands how to finish games and take advantage of certain situations,” Kuester said. “The transition defense wasn’t where it should have been.”