Boston — Call it the good, the bad and the ugly.
The good: The Pistons will go into the All-Star break in playoff position.
The bad: After four straight wins against some of the dregs of the league, they lost again.
The ugly: Their up-and-down play doesn’t portend well for a potential playoff run.
There’s some good to take away from the Pistons before the All-Star break, but there are just as many questions about what they can do in the final 26 games of the regular season.
Their 118-110 loss to the Boston Celtics on Wednesday night at TD Garden was another loss against a top team in the Eastern Conference that leaves many unknowns about which direction they’ll go after the All-Star break.
“The message is we can’t let this taint us. We’re going in the right direction both offensively and defensively, against one of the top teams in our conference,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey said. “Again, it’s the things we can control. The starts of the quarters were 8-0, 8-0, 9-2 — and that was our bugaboo.”
Blake Griffin had 32 points, eight rebounds and five assists, Andre Drummond 21 points and 17 rebounds, and Reggie Jackson 18 points for the Pistons (26-30), who won five of their final seven games before the break and don’t play again until Feb. 22 at Atlanta.
The Celtics (37-21) had a 57-52 halftime lead after a pair of free throws by Gordon Hayward (18 points, five rebounds and eight assists). In the third quarter, Boston opened with an 8-2 run, with 3-pointers by Hayward and Marcus Smart (16 points) and a lay-in by Jayson Tatum (19 points, four rebounds).
The Pistons got a 3-pointer from Bruce Brown and a free throw by Drummond to get within 65-58, but the Celtics added a 7-0 run — with back-to-back baskets by former Piston Marcus Morris (11 points, six rebounds) and a 3-pointer by Tatum to extend the lead to 14.
The bad starts to quarters were the recurring theme, with an added 8-0 Celtics run to start the fourth to drive home the point.
“We can’t start quarters like that and it is going to be hard to fight back against a good team like this,” Drummond said. “That’s what it really boils down to: We just have to start the game off the right way.”
For most of the game, the Pistons struggled with rotations, with Luke Kennard (11 points) being inserted into the starting lineup, taking away a key cog of the reserve group.
The Celtics lead reached 91-72 at the end of the third quarter and the margin got up to 28, but the Pistons surged back, cutting it to 10 with four minutes remaining. They got within single digits, but Boston held on to get back-to-back wins ahead of the break.
Griffin was optimistic about the first 56 games and the task remaining in the final 26 of the regular season.
“I liked how we played in the stretch besides quarters here and there. Even the Clippers game (losing a 25-point lead) for the most part, we had one bad quarter,” Griffin said. “Bad quarter and half tonight — a couple of bad quarters. That’s a positive going into the break, the way we’ve been playing, not just the wins.”
Casey liked the grit shown in erasing the big deficit, but the bigger goal is to not get in them in the first place.
“The most important thing is that we have to come out with that mentality in every quarter and play in a desperate mentality and understand how hard and how desperate you have to play on every possession,” Casey said. “I don’t think we did that in certain instances to start quarters.”
1. Dwane Casey continued to try new starting groups, inserting Kennard instead of Langston Galloway against the Celtics, who have a bigger starting five. It took some time to catch on — at least on the defensive end — as Boston jumped out to an 8-0 advantage in the first 2 1/2 minutes. With Reggie Bullock gone, it’s an issue that they’ll have to look at resolving after the All-Star break.
2. Thon Maker continued to show signs of progress on the defensive end, with his aggressive play and relentless pursuit. It’s going to be a bit before he gets fully comfortable with the system, but individually, he’s making a mark with Casey, as he got more prime playing time with the starting group, playing more after Drummond got in foul trouble and the Pistons were short on options.
3. Wayne Ellington had another poor shooting performance, going 5-of-12 from the field and 3-of-10 on 3-pointers. He looks to be rushing his shot and after missing the first five attempts — all 3-pointers — he finally made one, with 23.2 seconds left in the third quarter. Casey looked to be trying to mix Ellington in more with the starters, which is where he’ll likely end up at some point after the All-Star break.
4. With Kennard in the starting group, the reserve unit lost its best playmaker and struggled to find its footing. Through the first half, they were 2-of-11 from the field and 0-of-6 on 3-pointers, netting just four points. Kennard is an integral part of that second group and whenever he starts, he struggles to mesh with the starters and the reserves aren’t as effective without him.
5. Drummond picked up three fouls in a hurry in the second quarter and had to go to the bench. He picked up his fourth foul on a weird play, getting tangled up with Daniel Theis, who looked to head-butt Drummond. Officials reviewed the play and determined it was a technical foul on Theis but Drummond’s fourth, which affected the rotations — giving Maker more time — in the second half.