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We're No. 2! We're No. 2!

When the Celtics traded last summer for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, it made an optimist of Paul Pierce. The same was true for Boston coach Doc Rivers, Wyc Grousbeck and his fellow Celtic owners ... and Chauncey Billups.

"I love it, I love it, I love it. I really do,'' says Billups, who will lead the Pistons into Boston on Wednesday in a renewal of their rivalry. "They deserve the credit they're getting. That team has been dominant, so they're not just getting the credit because they have three great players. They're playing their butt off.''

That part is obvious. So how is it a good thing for Detroit that it remains the No. 2 team in the conference behind the Celtics?

"I enjoy somebody else getting that limelight,'' Billups said. "We can be who we've always been. We can be the hunter. We can be hunting people down as opposed to everybody hunting us.''

By surging to the top of the Eastern Conference, Boston has enabled the Pistons to regain their identity as the underdog, the B-list contender. They've tried it the other way by winning the regular-season East title outright the last two years, and the unfortunate result each time was a collapse in the conference finals -- against Miami (after the Pistons won an East-leading 64 games) in 2006 and Cleveland (after taking a 2-0 series lead over the Cavaliers) last season.

What Billups has learned is that he and his teammates need inspiration. They need someone to look up to all year long, an opponent deemed to be their superior -- and therefore a target. Without having the Celtics to chase, the long winter in Detroit would grow monotonous to a team that has reached the last five conference finals.

"The lesson I know I learned -- that I think our whole team learned -- is that we became too complacent,'' Billups said of the Pistons' recent failures. "We just thought it was going to happen for us. We were thinking we've been out there too long, and this team [last year's Cavaliers] shouldn't be out on the court with us, they shouldn't be beating us. And before you know it, a team is getting that confidence, they're getting that snowball effect to where that snowball gets really big and you can't stop it from rolling you over.

"That's 100 percent what happened to us in the Cleveland series. I've said it a lot of times, but I just don't think that team was better than us. But they played better than us for that week and a half. Every game, I thought they outplayed us. So we get two wins at home, squeak by, and we didn't even play good and we won. So we're good. But then they get that ball rolling on you and it's over. So that's the lesson I've learned, that we're going to keep our finger on it and we're not going to let that happen again.

"Those things make you humble. I was telling somebody the other day, 'I don't know what I would give to relive that night we won the championship.' Those things make you hungry, and we look forward to trying to get back.''

After the Celtics jumped out to a 13-2 start in November, the Pistons reacted to the challenge -- and since then Detroit (34-11) and Boston (33-10) have been even while each winning on the other's court. The Celtics have played at a higher level despite Garnett's three-week absence -- they've lost only one game by 10 or more points, compared to seven such losses by Detroit -- but the Pistons' response is that they've learned the hard way to build toward the postseason, to peak at the right time.

Billups is encouraged by the play of the young role players, who are giving the Pistons more production off the bench than their 2003-04 championship team. The Pistons lead the league in scoring defense and fewest offensive turnovers (the former resulting in part from the latter), they've compiled two streaks of at least 10 wins, and they're grateful that so few people appear to be paying attention to any of it.

"Nobody knows we're winning,'' Billups said. "All people know is that [Pau] Gasol went to L.A., Shaq went to Phoenix and J-Kidd [went to Dallas] -- that's all that people know is going on with the NBA. Which is cool. That's perfect for us.''

Nor is he frightened by those improvements made by the recast contenders in the West.

"You can never discount the luxury of having a nucleus that's been together five or six years and been successful,'' he said. "To win the championship, you've got to be a cohesive unit. You can't have just All-Stars and big names. Your guys have got to sacrifice some things, and you've got to be a little lucky as well.''

In the meantime, Billups is looking forward to this rematch with the Celtics.

"I like the outfit we got on better than the one they got on,'' Billups said. "I like beating who's supposed to be the best. That game is more important to me than any other game, because I like beating who's supposed to be the best.''

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