Only one team played 'smashmouth' ball

BOSTON -- The same word kept coming out of Detroit Pistons coach Michael Curry's mouth, over and over again until the count got up to nearly a half-dozen.

The word was "smashmouth," and Curry wasn't using it to describe his own team's play.

"This is the only team that really physically plays smashmouth basketball against you, and we're not as sharp in our coverages as we were," Curry said. "To beat them we have to be a more physical team."

Translation: The Pistons were too soft, and soft isn't going to get it done against the defending NBA champs.

Game 12 of the Pistons' already-turbulent season was entirely different from Game 11, played the night before at home against Cleveland. That's the one in which they outscored LeBron James & Co. by 18 points in the second half to end the Cavs' eight-game winning streak.

Game 9 wasn't too shabby, either, last Friday night, when they went into the Staples Center and became the first team to defeat the Los Angeles Lakers this season, which is what helped make Thursday's game in Boston even more puzzling.

After jetting to a 13-2 lead, the Pistons went flat and let the game get away from them early in the third quarter, eventually dropping a 98-80 decision to the Celtics in a game in which they trailed by as many as 29 points.

"Any time you lose to them twice by over 20 points, that's bananas, because we don't play like that," Richard Hamilton said. "It's not just one person, it's everybody. Everybody's trying to figure out what's our identity, what have I got to do to help the team out. Guys are still trying to find their niche, what we're going to be and what we're going to be about this season."

The loss left the Pistons with an 8-4 record, 4-3 since the blockbuster trade that sent team leader Chauncey Billups to Denver for Allen Iverson. They have already traveled to the East Coast twice and to Canada once and had a four-games-in-six-nights voyage to the West Coast.

The schedule eases up for the Pistons over the next six weeks, and they expect to emerge from December with a better understanding of who they are -- and what they can and cannot do.

To Curry, the Pistons and Celtics are evenly matched from a physical standpoint, which made Thursday night's difference in passion from the two teams all the more difficult to swallow. A swagger used to come along with the toughness that the Pistons embodied for so many years, but the team with swagger nowadays is wearing green and white.

"You have to have toughness if you want to beat them. You don't have a choice. If you have to beat them to get to the Finals, you're going to have to beat them -- or you're going to have to be doggone good the other way [on offense]," Curry said.

After taking a nine-point lead into halftime, Boston came out with a 26-12 run to start the third quarter, coming up with five steals in the first 8:22, driving to the hole for five layups and taking advantage of Detroit's slow defensive rotations to create several open looks from the perimeter. A 3-pointer by Pierce made it 71-52, and Pierce then came up a steal that led to a pair of foul shots by Ray Allen that got the lead over 20.

Game over.

"It's 12 games into the season -- we got 70 more games to go. It's a long season," Iverson said afterward. "We trust each other, I think we do, but when you lose a game like we lost tonight, there's a bunch of negative things you can say.

"But it has to be that way night in, night out. You have to trust on defensive assignments, on the offensive end, penetrating and making the right play. That's definitely the case, but you hear that a lot more when you lose a game than when you win a game."

Curry's point about "smashmouth" ball was relayed to Iverson, who asked the questioner why he didn't hit Curry with a follow-up question asking him to properly define the word.

"I understand why you're asking me, but you'd have to ask him to elaborate on that. I really don't know what it means as far as 'smashmouth.' God bless me, I have all my teeth in my mouth now, so I didn't get smashed in the mouth," Iverson said.

With that, Iverson chuckled and called it a night.

As he said, 70 more games is a long, long way to go. And it'll provide a long time for the Pistons to grasp what Curry's exact meaning was when he kept pointing out how one team -- not his own -- was the only one playing basketball with a level of zeal that qualified as smashmouth.

Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.