PAINT THE PISTONS GREEN WITH ENVY

Jerry Stackhouse lost control of the ball and it flipped into the air and he leaped to get it back from his defender, Boston’s Paul Pierce. First tap, they both got a hand on it. Second tap, more Pierce than Stack. Third tap, Pierce gaining control. Final tap, Stack’s arms fell out of contention and it was tall Paul, all ball.

That pretty much symbolized Wednesday night at the Palace — the first home playoff loss for the surprising but still inconsistent Pistons. They came out making mistakes against the Celtics, desperately tried to get it back, and finally fell off like a scraped barnacle. Game 1, a Pistons shoot-fest, may have been only three days earlier, but it might as well have been three years.

This time, it was Boston with the higher field goal percentage. And it wasn’t the what as much as the where. In case you haven’t studied a basketball court lately, there’s an area from under the basket out to the foul line. They call it “the paint.” The object is to keep your opponents out of it, not let them color themselves with it.

The Celtics had so many in-the-paint points Wednesday night, I thought they were opening a Sherwin Williams franchise. Almost half of Boston’s baskets from baby range? Forty-two of the 85 points? Against a team known for its defense?

“Instead of forcing the three-pointers,” said Boston’s Rodney Rogers, “we went to the basket and made lay-ups.”

Who wouldn’t? Here was Pierce driving through the defense like a truck through crepe paper, laying it in, laying it up, laying it off glass. Here was Antoine Walker, spinning and doing the same. Tony Battie dunked once, dunked twice, put back a rebound for a 14-point lead and hollered “Arrrrrr” with that green-and-white mouthpiece that makes him look like a distant cousin to the Green Goblin in “Spider-Man.”

Speaking of which, does anyone have some webbing? That has to work better than whatever defense the Pistons were throwing up there Wednesday night.

Comeback bid falls short

Of course, when the defense lags, the offense often sags. And so the Pistons’ first-half shooting was bleak, and the second half wasn’t much better. Cliff Robinson did have a handful of those jolting shots that brought the crowd to its feet and the Pistons back to within two points.

But that was with 4:10 left in the third quarter. And it was as close as they got. After that, it was slip, slide and away, to an 85-77 defeat.

“We shot horribly tonight,” Jon Barry said of their 32.9 percent from the floor.

“We fell in love with the jump shot,” said Corliss Williamson, “and we didn’t go inside enough.”

Then again, Boston did it enough for both of them.

Stackhouse had points, but missed too many shots to get them. Williamson had the rare ineffective night. Barry was cold. And Chucky Atkins was sent to his seat almost before he broke a sweat, the refs’ whistles having been no friend to him.

By the end, the sellout crowd — and let’s give the fans a hand, they were loud and they were there, a nice improvement — but they were mostly in the parking lot.

And the Pistons were heading for Boston with the series tied, and a leak in their defense that quickly needs repair.

No reason to panic

Now, this is hardly the end of the world. These are seven-game rounds now, time enough for an ebb and flow. The Celtics — who flew home between games, and should thank TNT and NBC for the home cooking — obviously adjusted to the Pistons from Game 1. Now it is the Pistons’ turn. Hey. If the Lakers and Kings can lose Game 2 at home, Detroit’s dropping one is not exactly a shock.

But it is a concern, more for the how than the happening. The Pistons simply cannot allow the lay-up drill they witnessed Wednesday. The Celtics are a team that actually likes the perimeter. If it’s that attractive to go inside on the Pistons, there must really be some room to fill.

“They were pressing me and letting me drive,” Pierce said, “and that’s fine by me.”

Unfortunately, it’s not the reason the Pistons are in the conference semifinals. Their shooting will come back. But their trademark defense doesn’t happen by chance; it happens by effort. They were outrebounded, 53-35. That can’t happen.

They hit the road now, and while the Celtics said they weren’t assuming anything going back to the FleetCenter, the Pistons shouldn’t either.

Remember, the paint there is already green.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR.

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