The Boston Celtics played bend-but-don't-break defense for three quarters, but they folded late in the game, as the Detroit Pistons started penetrating the paint and raining threes on their way to a 105-97 overtime victory.
With center Greg Monroe out for the fourth game in a row with a right knee strain, the Pistons have evolved into a three-point heavy team. Over the last three games entering Sunday, Detroit attempted 30.2 three-pointers per 100 possessions, which ranked second in the NBA.
"What [the absence of Monroe] has created is eight guards that play around two rolling big men," head coach Brad Stevens said before the game. "They have a uniqueness to them that is really different to when they first came here last time. And it makes them more difficult to guard in some ways, just because you've got to help appropriately, then rush back out."
The Celtics did an admirable job of containing Detroit's three-point parade through the first three quarters, holding them to just 4-for-15 from behind the arc, with very few open spot up and transition opportunities.
But in the fourth quarter and overtime the Pistons finished 5-of-11 from downtown, as Boston's defense collapsed.
"The biggest thing was that they had a couple of single side bump actions that they ran from a pick-and-roll standpoint we were a little bit late to. But it's the transition ones that kill you," Stevens said when asked about adjustments made by Detroit. "We were flying around pretty well in the first three quarters, but I thought we slowed down a little bit in the fourth."
The Pistons ended the final 17 minutes of the game with a grouping of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Jodie Meeks, and Tayshaun Prince, all of whom hit backbreaking three-pointers. Over that stretch, the Pistons had an amazing 112.7 Offensive Rating, with an absolutely filthy 74.2 Defensive Rating.
Detroit thoroughly clobbered Boston when it mattered most.
But it wasn't just physical dominance by the Pistons, but a lack of mental focus from the Celtics themselves. Prince hit a go-ahead transition three-pointer with the Pistons with 1:15 remaining in regulation, after being left wide open by Kelly Olynyk, who got caught ball watching.
Mental mistakes like this can't happen, especially late in the game, and definitely not when it's Tayshaun Prince in the corner, who was shooting a ridiculous 48.7 percent on corner threes entering the night.
Prince's three might've had a taste of sweet revenge attached to, but no shot hurt them more than this one in overtime by Caldwell-Pope:
This play is precisely what Stevens alluded to before the game when he said the Pistons have a rolling big man surrounded by shooters. Detroit ran a high pick-and-roll and Jonas Jerebko was unable to slow Andre Drummond down at the nail, so Jae Crowder sucked all the way into the paint, which left plenty of breathing room for Caldwell-Pope to drain a three that virtually iced the game.
"We just didn't get stops in overtime to give ourselves a chance," a somber Crowder said after the game. "[We didn't respond well to] them spreading us out by going pick-and-roll and shooting threes."
The Celtics started to turn their season around by making plays on the defensive end; from March 4 through last Tuesday they had the NBA's third-best Defensive Rating of 95.2, but over their three-game losing streak that number has plummeted to 107.
With 13 games remaining, the Celtics are now on the outside looking in of the playoffs, and they are in desperate need of reinforcements. Marcus Smart will be back on Monday night as a 3-and-D machine, but the return of Isaiah Thomas is becoming increasingly important by the day.
The Boston Celtics can still make the playoffs, but it's going to be a lot harder to do after losing winnable games like this one against the Detroit Pistons.