Slow start dooms Celtics in 96-93 loss to Pistons

The Celtics celebrated New Year’s Eve in a Detroit hotel ballroom with a cutthroat version of Secret Santa known as White Elephant. Players could claim gifts opened by their teammates, and in one particularly rough instance Marcus Smart had to surrender a bottle of 12-year-old rye whisky. He settled for a karaoke set.

The Celtics collectively also got less than they wanted against the Pistons Friday night, with their competitive nature apparently still haggling for gifts back in that ballroom, as they overcame a sizable deficit only to lose to the previously winless Pistons, 96-93.

The Pistons started hot, led by 21 points in the second quarter, and put the onus on a flat Celtics team to climb out of their hole.

Though they took the lead late, the Celtics paid dearly for their early sins, wasting a 28-point performance by Jayson Tatum and another 25 from Jaylen Brown.

This matter of poor starts is an old problem, more associated with the early part of last season. But in a season when slow third quarters have become the new issue, this was an unwanted wrinkle.

“Wasn’t ready, plain and simple,” said Smart. “We came out lackadaisical.”

And, as a result, the Celtics allowed a young, previously winless team to get the best of them at the opening tap.

“I don’t know,” Brad Stevens said of what was behind the slow start. “You are always wondering why you don’t start well. There are two teams playing and they obviously started well so that was probably a large part of it. I thought the most obvious sign of it was our transition running offensively. It bled into the rest of the game. I just didn’t think we ran hard. We did at the end of the game, we did a good job but these guys are long, athletic, they are well-coached, they are going to be really hard to score on if we start offense at 14 (on the shot clock) and it’s not really crisp.”

Alas, by the end of the game, after the Celtics had come back, cutting a 15-point halftime Detroit lead to six by the end of the third quarter, and taking the lead on several occasions in the fourth, they paid for that lackadaisical start.

The Celtics took the lead twice in the last 5:13 – 88-86 on a Tatum 3-pointer, and 90-88 on a Brown finger roll, the latter boosted when Tatum came back with another bomb for a 93-88 lead with 4:15 left.

The Celtics, who missed their last 10 shots, wouldn’t score again, with Tatum and Smart contributing three misses each, including a particularly damaging sequence.

The Celtics, trailing 95-93, took possession with 25.3 seconds left following a Saddiq Bey free throw, and fired blanks. Tatum missed an open jumper from the right corner, and though Daniel Theis grabbed the rebound, Smart missed at the rim.

“We had a lot of wide-open shots that time,” said Stevens. “I think what we did was we started off so poorly in the first half, we just decreased our margin for error and every one of those shots was way more meaningful than if we played with better substance in the first half. That might have been the basketball gods way of saying that we didn’t deserve to win the game. I thought a lot of the looks — I mean, the looks in the last minute were all pretty good looks overall.”

By then only the scoreboard was unsightly.

The early road will be rocky: Their strange mix of veteran youth and unproven youth considered, the Celtics understand their best basketball is likely a month or two away.

“Yeah, we expected it,” Smart said of the uneven play that has led to a 3-3 start. “We didn’t expect it to be this bad, but we expected to have some ups and downs. Lot of curveballs thrown our way with a lot of young guys, lot of new guys. But it’s still not an excuse. A lot of us have been here for a longer period of time. We know the system, we know what Brad wants, and we have to go out there and do it. The coaching staff does a great job of putting us in a position to win and a position to succeed, but it’s on us.”

Double bigs again: Tristan Thompson returned after a one-game absence to rest his ailing hamstring, and as a result Stevens returned to a starting lineup with the former Cavalier and Theis both on the baseline. Theis has admitted to needing time to learn playing the so-called four instead of the five. This is also the unit that was on the floor when the Celtics got off to their leaden start. And though Stevens prefers smaller lineups, he’s not ready to shelve this combination.

“It gives us a lot of rim protection and obviously helps the rebounding,” said Tatum.

Close call for Timelord: Rob Williams was slow to get up off the floor in the fourth quarter after bumping knees with Derrick Rose, and then left the game for good. But the moment apparently looked worse than it actually was.

“Knee-to-knee. They told me at the very end he could go back in if need be,” said Stevens, who ultimately chose otherwise.

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