Wednesday May 21st, 2008

BOSTON -- Objects in mirror are closer than they appear ... The opener of this Eastern Conference finals should carry the same kind of warning. What we saw in the Celtics' 88-79 Game 1 win may not be what we see for the remainder of the series.

Take the seven turnovers the Pistons suffered in the third quarter Tuesday that enabled Boston to take a decisive 69-57 lead into the fourth. This is a Pistons team that led the league in fewest turnovers for a third straight year, and last week they set an NBA postseason record with a spectacularly efficient three turnovers overall in their clinching Game 5 win against Orlando. In all three regular-season games the Pistons won the turnover battle against Boston by an average of 13-10. So their loss of the turnover column Tuesday (a 13-11 advantage for the Celtics) may be more anomaly than the beginning of a trend.

"We just didn't seem to be in a good flow -- they may have had something to do with that," said Detroit coach Flip Saunders. "We didn't get into our offense quick enough. Defensively we were a step slow on rotations ... they took away some of our pick-and-roll situations ... didn't make some shots early ...''

It was a long list for Detroit, but then these teams were colliding from opposite directions. The Pistons had earned a week off after becoming the first team of the preceding round to win on the road, whereas the Celtics were playing their 11th game in 22 days following their enervating Game 7 win against the visiting Cavaliers on Sunday. "I like this rhythm of every other day," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "A lot of people have talked about the fatigue. Obviously we would rather not have gone through 14 games, but I still think it's helped us going through the tough games and being more battle ready."

But put aside these notes for future consideration: Kevin Garnett looked unusually tired at the end of his 38-minute appearance Tuesday, and Paul Pierce (44 minutes) was surprised by how quickly he recovered from seven draining games against LeBron James which culminated in his 41-point epic Sunday.

Rivers acknowledged that the extra efforts of the last month may yet catch up to the Celtics. But there was no other course for them to take: They needed the extra court time in order to learn how to play together in the postseason. They needed to develop the group understanding that the Pistons take for granted after six straight years of reaching the conference finals.

Given the quality of opposition and Boston's preceding struggles in 14 games with Atlanta and Cleveland, this was easily the Celtics' most impressive display of offensive rhythm in the playoffs. They made more than half of their shots (52.2 percent) for the first time and they took their first steps toward rehabilitating Ray Allen back into All-Star form. Though he was an unimpressive 3 of 10, he was far more active as a finisher around the basket and an initiator of offense.

The Pistons played their way into this game, working off rust and acquiring rhythm of their own. They allowed the Celtics to pursue their agenda of establishing a hierarchy -- Pierce (22 points), Garnett (a game-high 26) and Allen (9) ranked Nos. 1-2-3 in field goal attempts -- with Pierce's drives to the basket providing oxygen to the offensive bloodstream in a continuation of his intensive Game 7 performance just two days earlier. Rivers expects them to do a better job in Game 2 of clamping off the paint, where the Celtics outscored their guests 44-22.

As much as the Celtics will be happy to have held serve for a ninth straight home game in the postseason, Detroit will find reason to take heart from its experiences too. In spite of Rasheed Wallace's 3 of 12 performance and Chauncey Billups' uncharacteristic meekness (3 of 6 from the floor with two assists), they were within 78-71 inside the final five minutes. "They've been through so many games, they've come back so many times and you can't let your guard down," said Rivers. "There was two minutes left, we're up 10 and had the ball, and I was completely worried.''

In a strange way, the Pistons may feel fortunate that this opener wasn't played on their home floor, where they would have felt much more pressure to win coming off their week-long layoff. Both teams have upside -- the Celtics by renewing the production of Allen, the Pistons by regaining their sharpness -- and this game is but the starting point. The winner of this series will be playing at a much higher level than we saw Tuesday night.

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