By forcing Boston Celtics to bring playoff intensity, Pistons show progress

For 40 minutes, the Celtics and Pistons played regular-season basketball. But when the Celtics switched into playoff gear down the stretch, Detroit barely had a chance.

After building a 75-67 lead with 7:52 remaining, the Pistons watched Boston take this game from them. The Celtics turned up their defensive pressure, and the Pistons could barely complete passes, let alone a shot. The Celtics crashed the offensive glass, and the Pistons could barely stop Boston possessions from eventually ending in points.

In that final stretch of their 86-82 win, the Celtics:

  • outscored Detroit, 19-7.
  • outrebounded Detroit, 10-7.
  • outscored Detroit in second-chance points, 7-2.

That’s all downside, but despite the disappointing ending, this game displayed plenty of encouraging signs for the Pistons.

The Pistons beat the regular-season Celtics and had a chance, albeit slim, against the post-season Celtics tonight. A week ago, who would have thought either would be possible?

With a new-found defensive cohesion, the Pistons built a strong lead. With Greg Monroe, the Pistons went from definitely not having a chance late to barely having a chance late, and unless your expectations rose too high during Detroit’s three-game win streak, that’s a positive step.

Let’s start with the defensive cohesion. The Pistons rotated quickly, and everyone appeared committed to stopping the Celtics. Tracy McGrady had two steals and two blocks, and Tayshaun Prince, Chris Wilcox and Charlie Villanueva each added a steal and a block.

Although nearly every Piston’s stood out positively on defense, I want to pay particular attention to Villanueva. He entered the game, quickly missed his first two shots and didn’t offer much else to make up for that. But he realized that wouldn’t cut it and began attacking the glass, finishing with eight rebounds in 30 minutes, and applying pressure to the man he was guarding.

As far as having a chance late, yes, 19-7 in about eight minutes looks pretty bad. But it could have been much worse. And when the Celtics channel a playoff-like intensity against a 15-27 team, it usually is much worse.

But Monroe made me add “barely” three times in this post’s opening, rather than just counting the Pistons’ fortunes at zero.

With the Celtics trailing by eight late, Shaquille O’Neal went on an 9-1 run. He converted two layups on lob passes from Rajon Rondo. Then, he stole a Rodney Stuckey pass, which led to a Paul Pierce layup. Shaq followed that with another layup, this one while McGrady fouled him, and even made the free throw.

That’s what contenders do. They rely on experienced players. They dominate inside. They stomp on your heart in a matter of minutes.

Shaq, the league’s leader in body mass index, according Hayes Davenport of Celtics Hub, was a mismatch the Pistons’ two bigs on the court – Wilcox and Villanueva – couldn’t handle. John Kuester got outcoached by asking two slender power forwards to keep Shaq off balance.

But unlike most losing teams, the Pistons had an answer – bringing Monroe back in the game. As much I’ve said Monroe must gain lower-body strength, he’s still easily the team’s bulkiest big man with Ben Wallace sidelined.

With Monroe on the court, Shaq didn’t score again. Monroe scored a late layup after a nice drive and pass from Stuckey, who baited the Boston defenders toward him just enough. Monroe converted the type of shot he struggled with early in the season. Rather than just forcing the ball into his defender’s hands, he used the rim to create space and released the ball high. On Detroit’s next possession, Monroe, who finished with 13 points and nine rebounds, scored inside again.

Unfortunately, that would be the Pistons’ last points of the game. The Celtics’ defense clamped down, McGrady forced a 3-pointer and time ran too low to patiently look for quality shots or receive valid calls from the referees.*

*I don’t write about officiating often, and I’m not going to make a habit of it. But late in tonight’s game, Ben Gordon drove to the basket. Glen Davis rotated to help and initiated a lot of contact with his upper body while in the air. The referees didn’t call a foul. If this happened in the first three quarters, I wouldn’t be writing about it. But this didn’t happen in the first three quarters, and it wouldn’t have happened in the first three quarters.

Officials purposefully** let more fouls go late in close games.  This isn’t a gripe about this game, and it isn’t a gripe about the Pistons being mistreated. My complaint is with this continued practice. It’s fair in that everyone understands how it will work. But that doesn’t make for good basketball. This isn’t putting the game in the hands of the players. Drawing a foul is a perfectly valid skill in basketball. Defending without fouling is a perfectly valid skill in basketball. Both – and the rulebook, which as far as I know, doesn’t provide different definitions for fouls depending on the time and score of the game – are being ignored.

The NBA should fix this problem.

**If it’s not done purposefully, the quality of officiating somehow randomly declines near the end of close games.

Despite any disappointment about blowing a fourth-quarter lead or any ill-feeling toward the referees, tonight was another positive step for Detroit.

Games like this are why the Pistons aren’t tanking to secure better lottery odds. Whether it’s Villanueva learning how to bring intensity on defense, Monroe learning how to compete in hostile environments or Kuester learning how to match wits with the league’s best coaches, games like this matter in the long run.

The Pistons shouldn’t hang their heads tonight.

The Celtics didn’t expect to need playoff intensity against Detroit, but they did. That’s a moral victory, and for a Pistons team that’s finally playing hard, I’m willing to count moral victories.

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Tags: Ben Gordon Charlie Villanueva Chris Wilcox Greg Monroe John Kuester Rodney Stuckey Tracy McGrady

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