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Celtics sputter again

Pistons overcome double-digit deficit

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Doc Rivers saw no similarities between the way the Celtics played yesterday at the Palace of Auburn Hills and the way they played against the Pistons in the same venue two months ago.

Even though the Celtics squandered double-digit leads in both contests, collapsed in the second halves, and watched one Piston singlehandedly grab momentum in the third quarters, Rivers felt better about what transpired yesterday. Perhaps it was the perspective of a coach desperate to see some improvement, any improvement, in the wake of the Celtics' 94-84 loss.

Boston has lost 9 of 12 games, seemingly backsliding while other teams in the Atlantic Division and the East make up ground.

While there were definite, even glaring, differences in the two most recent losses to the Pistons, the players were quick to pick out the parallels. In both contests, the Celtics understood their lead was tenuous, that it was only a matter of time before the Pistons would make a run. In both contests, the Celtics also expected one of the Pistons' many offensive threats to step up. They just did not know which one it would be.

The first of two key Detroit runs yesterday came in the second quarter, behind the 3-point shooting of Carlos Delfino (season-high 11 points) off the bench. The second spurt came at the end of the third as Rasheed Wallace found his rhythm on the way to a game-high 23 points. In keeping with the tag-team scoring approach, Tayshaun Prince (9 of 13 points in the fourth) made sure the Pistons did not falter in the final period.

''It was almost the same," said Ricky Davis, who went scoreless for what he believed was the first time in his NBA career. ''The difference here was that Rasheed went off and not Chauncey [Billups]. It was about the same game.

''It's just tough because those guys play as a team. They don't care who's scoring 20, 30 points. They don't care who's taking the most shots. They go back to the same plays that they've been scoring on and they run them until it falls off."

What might have been a turning point became a cruel tease as the Celtics squandered a 14-point lead and entered halftime behind, 41-40. Boston clearly caught Detroit on an off day, as the defending Eastern Conference champions shot just 29 percent (5 for 17) in the opening quarter and appeared sluggish through much of the first half.

But, as everyone knows, the Pistons possess the kind of talent and team ethic that allows them to shrug off deficits other squads would find difficult to overcome. So it came as no surprise that Detroit shot almost 60 percent in the second quarter and regained the lead with a 15-2 spurt.

''We get a big lead and we start to play tight," said Delonte West (20 points, 7 rebounds). ''Once we get up on teams, we have to get that mentality where we step on their throats. We have to stop letting teams get back up.

''We had an opportunity to throw a knockout punch before we went into the half, but we got tight. When we do that, we commit turnovers, lose concentration on defense, and give up easy baskets."

The Celtics could not win a game of catchup with the Pistons, no matter how small the deficit. Detroit simply has too much experience and too many options on offense to allow an opponent like Boston back in the game. Even on an off day.

On Nov. 15, Billups poured in 17 points in the third quarter, helping the Pistons rally from a 13-point deficit and distance themselves from the Celtics en route to a 15-point victory. Yesterday, Wallace scored 18 in the third as Detroit effectively put the game away.

After the Pistons took the lead for good on a 16-footer by Richard Hamilton with 3:09 remaining in the third, it was all Wallace for the remainder of the quarter. He scored the Pistons' final 10 points as the home team closed with a 12-3 run to enter the fourth ahead, 73-65.

With Wallace easily finding his way around defenders Raef LaFrentz, Mark Blount, and Kendrick Perkins, Detroit outscored Boston, 32-25, in the period and shot 77 percent.

In the fourth, the Pistons were never in danger of losing their lead or even giving the Celtics a glimmer of hope. They played with the confidence of a team that has closed out many games.

''They're a better team," said Rivers. ''I don't think it's anything to be ashamed about."

On that account, Rivers may be right. The struggling Celtics already have plenty they can be ashamed about. Losing three straight times to the best team in the NBA does not rate.

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