Celtics are playing with fire but keep winning: 5 takeaways from Celtics vs. Pistons

"It came at the right time. We can lock in at times when we need to."

By Tom Westerholm

The phrase “flip a switch” has a negative connotation for most sports fans, since it brings to mind a team that takes its opponents lightly.

Theseem to have a switch, but they don’t appear to take opponents lightly. On Friday, they let the Pistons hang tough, but they delivered a haymaker at the right time to claim a 114-103 win.

Theseem to have figured out exactly when they need to apply pressure, and on Saturday, they held the Pistons to just two field goals and 13 total points in the fourth quarter. Their defensive rating looked like it would take a hit when the Pistons scored 90 points through three quarters but instead absorbed a small ding. Incredibly, the Pistons didn’t score a field goal in the fourth quarter until the final 30 seconds.


“[The defense] came at the right time,” Ime Udoka said. “We can lock in at times when we need to, and to hold them to single digits for the most part in that quarter was impressive, and it came at the right time.”

Theneeded one great quarter to beat the Pistons, and they produced one. They needed four great quarters to beat the Nets, and they produced four. (They thought they needed four great quarters against the Sixers and they produced four, but the Sixers produced none and thewon by nearly 50 points.)

Maybe a better way to put it is that in an 82-game season that will unavoidably ebb and flow, theseem to save their best basketball for the most important moments. They have a solid handle on their formula, even if it’s a little combustible.

After all, theare 18-3 in their last 21 games and are on the verge of surpassing the Bulls for the No. 4 seed — the water line for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. You can’t really argue with that.

More takeaways

2. After the game, Marcus Smart made what sounded like a bitter (and also very reasonable) case that despite taking “bumps and bruises,” guards are overlooked in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation at the expense of centers and bigs. While bigs block shots and protect the rim, guards and wings can do a lot of difficult and highly impactful work on the perimeter that doesn’t show up as obviously in the box score as blocked shots.


One of the problems with Defensive Player of the Year is that while defensive stats have improved, the metrics are so much more difficult to develop. Bigs impact the metrics we currently have more than guards, and since defense is harder to evaluate than offense, those metrics are heavily cited for the award. We know blocked shots are useful. We also know deflections are useful, but we can’t quantify them quite as easily.

Celtics are playing with fire but keep winning: 5 takeaways from Celtics vs. Pistons

Smart said he wasn’t stressed about a potential DPOY snub. He did, however, give a 284-word answer to the question.

“I don’t see why it’s so hard for a guard to win it,” he said. “We talk about what bigs do — I’m not taking anything away from bigs, but we’ve got to first understand that in order for the guy to get to the big, you’ve got to get by us guards first. Most of the time we’re making it so tough that by the time he gets to him the big, all you’ve got to do is send him the other way. We’re doing the hard work, but, for us to not even be talked about in the discussion, let alone winning it, I think that’s BS.


“We all know it. It’s a popularity contest. You’ve got me and Rob and we’re not even in discussion for it on the best defensive team in the league. I mean, I think that says enough for us.”

What does Rob Williams think?

“I think Smart deserves it to be honest,” Williams said. “A lot of my defensive grit and my will to fight out there I get from just watching him, even in practice, just being vocal.

“He’s a great defensive anchor for us but he’s a better leader. He doesn’t even know it — he’s just talking, putting guys where they need to be. Smart should be the No. 1 runner for that.”

If a guard could make a case for DPOY, a good starting point is playing on the No. 1 defense in the league, and a good follow-up is a chorus of teammates singing your praises as the inspiration for that No. 1 defense.

3. Theand Pistons have played three physical, sneakily competitive matchups (the Pistons won one of them), and they still have one more to go. Theare older and more experienced, but matchups between these two teams feel like they could have some juice over the next few years.

“They got some great young guys over there,” Smart said. “They are finding themselves and finding the chemistry between each other and just finding ways to be in games. When you got a team like that, they are definitely tough. They are going to be around for awhile. It’s a team we are going to see and it’s a team we have to come out and impose our will on every time we get that chance.”


4. At the heart of the Pistons’ competitive group is Cade Cunningham, the No. 1 pick in last year’s draft. Pre-draft comparisons to Luka Doncic felt premature, but now that Cunningham is in the NBA, you can see the Doncic archetype in Cunningham’s game — he scores efficiently (setting aside the fourth quarter, during which nobody on his team shot well), shoots from deep, handles the ball with great size for a point guard and is a pin-point passer with highly advanced feel.

Smart knows Cunningham well, since both are from the Dallas area.

“He’s got more of a [Jayson Tatum] personality, which is laid-back, quiet,” Smart said. “But if you don’t step up to play, he will make you pay. We saw today he came out in the first quarter, 13 points. And he was rolling, he didn’t say a word.”

The Pistons are still bad enough to be in contention for a high draft pick and a shot at a player like Jabari Smith, Jaden Ivey, or Chet Holmgren. They are probably a few years away from being good, but there’s something brewing even as the losses pile up this season.

5. Thecan now look ahead to their game against Dallas, which is the precursor to the weekend’s big festivities: Kevin Garnett’s jersey retirement on Sunday.

“I think any time our guys can be around and see that and talk to these guys like Jayson did during the All-Star break is huge,” Udoka said. “We see the banners every day, and it keeps you sharp. It keeps those expectations in your mind. …


“I’m locked in during the game, so I didn’t see Pierce doing whatever he was doing. But these guys are passionate, and coming back home, they show it.”

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