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A Truly Thoughtless Loss

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At the risk of stating the patently obvious, the Celtics let one get away last night.

The referees didn't take it away.

As well as the Pistons played at times, they didn't take it away either.  Despite extending their lead to double-digits in the fourth quarter, they could never seem to put the green away for good until the waning seconds.

No, what makes this loss so frustrating is that this one is clearly on the Celtics, not so much for being the inferior physical team for the evening but for clearly coming in second place on the mental front.

The Guru has long enjoyed rebuffing claims of Tony Allen becoming a solid defender with the following scathing assessment: "I like his athleticism.  I love that he plays hard.  But consistently playing good defense has one more requirement, which Tony doesn't yet fulfill: possession of a brain.  Maybe one day he'll get there, and I certainly hope I'm wrong about him.  But he's still a long way from that point."

The problem for the Celtics wasn't that TA didn't play thoughtful defense last night.  It was that not too many others did either.

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The Celtics are in the midst of a series against a smart Detroit team that excels from the free throw line.  One member of the starting backcourt shoots 83 percent from the line; the other, 91.  Two members of the frontcourt hit nearly 77 percent of their attempts.  Antonio McDyess is the only liability at 62.2 percent on the season, and he's been at 86.7 percent for the playoffs.  Top reserve Rodney Stuckey shoots over 80 percet as well.

This Pistons team understands what its strengths are and does its best to play to them.  Several Pistons use the up-fake masterfully, including backcourt mates Rip Hamilton and Chauncey Billups.  They cut to the basket hard, use their bodies effectively to draw contact and ultimately earn their share of trips to the foul line.  They usually make the most of those opportunities.

This makes it all the more imperative that those looking to defeat the Pistons don't gift them unnecessary trips to that line.

Sadly, that's exactly what the Celtics spent the night doing.

It started on the game's very first play when Kendrick Perkins and Rajon Rondo botched a defensive switch, which led to Perk being isolated on the right wing with Billups.  Foul.  Two shots.  Bang.  Bang.

That set the tone for the night.

Just hours later, in the midst of my excessive stewing about this one, the rest is largely a blur.  But a few moments stand out.

Not once but twice, the Celtics fouled the Pistons more than 70 feet from the Detroit basket.  At least once -- when Perk fouled Rasheed Wallace on a loose ball with just outside of three minutes left to play in the second quarter -- the Celts were already in the penalty, leading to free throws for Wallace.

Big Baby Davis allowed McDyess to beat him for an easy lay-up and fouled him after the play.

Through three quarters, the green couldn't be bothered to pay attention to the Pistons' tendency to shot-fake.  The Celts simply could not stay on their feet defensively, leading to plenty of shooting fouls.  As it stood, it was fortunate that Detroit didn't end up converting more continuation opportunities.  Hamilton and Billups combined for 20 attempts at the line, largely thanks to this maneuver. 

Thanks as well to away from the ball fouls, of which the C's picked up a few as well.  Yes, it's tough to keep up with the likes of Hamilton and Billups, but these guys can't be sent to the stripe without doing some work that goes beyond sprinting a few feet without the ball.  It was a team effort here, too -- Posey, Garnett and TA were all guilty at times.  That isn't to point fingers, but simply to make it clear that the team as a unit wasn't there.

Rajon Rondo compounded a third quarter trip to the line for Billups with a technical, which added a third shot for the point guard.  Again, free points were given away for no good reason.

The list goes on, but you get the idea.  It wasn't just the fouling either; it was the complete mental effort or lack thereof on the defensive end.  Yes, the players hustled and busted it all game as always.  But they didn't rotate effectively.  They didn't finish traps.  They played 20 seconds of great defense instead of 24 on several possessions.  Against the Hawks and even sometimes agains the Cavs, the Celts could get away with that.  

Not against this Detroit team.  Billups nailed a three at the shot clock buzzer.  Hamilton forced Garnett out too far on a trap late in the clock and ran past him to bury a floater to extend the Pistons' lead to six in the final minute.  Tayshaun Prince finished an open dunk in the second quarter, which led to Leon Powe exiting stage left, not to be seen again for the evening.  It was that sort of night.

For all this negativity, that part is important, too: It was that sort of a night.  One night.  One time.  By and large, this isn't a dumb Celtics team.  Or a bad defensive team.  In fact, quite the opposite.  The Celtics were the best defensive team in basketball this season, and a big part of that was related to the players consistently making the right decisions, particularly regarding how to rotate and what spots to be in to keep the 'D' running on all cylinders.

It was just for one single night that the mental commitment clearly wasn't there for this team.  It was painful to watch, and it isn't any more pleasant to write about.  But that's it.  It's over.  The game, that is.  This series certainly isn't.  The sky isn't falling.  Yes, the Celts need to take a game in Detroit (two would be nice), but just as losing at home wasn't impossible, neither is winning on the road.

What the Celtics and their faithful (us) learned tonight was that it will be nearly impossible to beat this Detroit team without full mental commitment from everybody.  But that's that.  Nothing says the fellas won't come out with renewed fervor on Saturday night.

So on we move to Detroit -- and away from a frustrating missed opportunity in Game 2. 

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