Friday May 23rd, 2008

This is the silliest thing anyone can say and I'm just the one to say it: The Celtics are in fine shape. Nothing for the Bostonians to worry about. (Yet.)

I know the Celtics blew it 103-97 in Game 2 Thursday for their first home loss in 16 games since late March, and I know what that means. It means the worst road team in the playoffs -- the only franchise to reach the second round or beyond without winning a game away from home -- will have to go to Detroit this long weekend and win. It looks to me as if that's exactly what is going to happen.

This series is going to a Game 7. The Celtics are going to win at least one of the next two games in Detroit and then the Pistons may yet win another game here. This rivalry is going to transcend its surroundings.

Already we're seeing it bring out the best in everybody. Ray Allen went 9 of 16 for 25 points to break out of his extended slump -- this after an invisible 1 for 3 start in the first half. He isn't being double-teamed out of existence anymore. There were lanes for him to drive and screens for him to exploit. It is a highly promising sign for the Celtics that their big three went for 25 (Allen), 26 (Paul Pierce) and 24 (Kevin Garnett).

They lost because the Pistons are the Pistons: They couldn't afford to go to Detroit down 0-2 and so they hit close to a dozen enormous jump shots at pivotal times to stave off the beginnings of many unarticulated Celtic runs. Detroit is a share-the-wealth team and on Thursday its strength outmuscled the performance of Boston's big three as a half-dozen Pistons -- that's right, six of them -- scored in double figures, from Richard Hamilton's 25 points to the startling 13 posted by Rodney Stuckey.

The most impressive performance was by Chauncey Billups, who appears to have pulled an old-fashioned con on the Celtics by whispering to a friend in their camp that the right hamstring he strained May 7 at Orlando was limiting him so badly that he wouldn't be playing if this were a regular-season game. In his first game back Tuesday he had looked passive and slow while going a meager 3 of 6 from the floor with two assists in the Pistons' 88-79 loss.

But on the first possession of the game he showed an entirely different side to the Celtics -- i.e. his backside as he burst left past Celtic point guard Rajon Rondo to draw a foul from the second line of defense. In the early going he was somehow able to get by the quicker Rondo with either hand and create space to make plays or earn free throws (for 7 of his 19 points). His biggest move of all came with 20 seconds left and only 3 remaining on the shot clock as Detroit inbounded under its own basket: Billups shook his defender and took the pass in for a demoralizing reverse layup and a 100-94 Pistons.

"One thing I told Chauncey 'You ain't got to be overaggressive out there,''' said Hamilton. "'You can take your time and be the captain of our ship, and we'll try to do a good job of helping you out.'''

In those rare fourth-quarter moments when their offense wasn't finishing as planned, Pistons managed to recover a number of offensive rebounds. Which they converted.

When Billups wasn't on the floor, the Pistons were getting veteran minutes from the rookie Stuckey. Detroit's year-long investment in its young bench paid off after Stuckey opened the fourth quarter by being stripped from behind by Rondo. Instead of being unnerved by that moment, he responded with a run of huge baskets: a pullup jumper over James Posey, a strong drive on Glen (Big Baby) Davis and a jumper over Allen -- all while Billups was on the bench.

"He allowed me to sit on the bench a lot longer than usual,'' said Billups, who played 32 minutes. "I love it, it is a breath of fresh air for me to be able to sit back in a tough playoff game on the road. We're in Boston, a team that hasn't lost a game [at home] -- to have a young fella out there playing so effectively, it is a great feeling."

The Celtics outrebounded them 39-31 and outscored them in second-chance points 18-10, though the Pistons made up ground in both categories over the second half. And Detroit (28 of 32) earned seven more free-throw attempts overall, continuing a negative playoff trend for the Celtics.

What you have to ask now is whether the Celtics will be staring down a 3-1 deficit when they return home for Game 5. I am going to be shocked if that happens. In this series they have been able to run their offense for the first time in a month, re-establish their three stars and mount the brief but crucial defensive bursts that have defined them. The Pistons put forth a championship execution of jump-shooting under pressure and still the game was in doubt entering its last gasps.

Just as the Pistons weren't going to allow themselves to lose both games in Boston, nor is a 66-win Celtics team that is looking like itself again going to endure a lengthy playoff run without winning a game on the road. They desperately need to win in Detroit and that's what is going to happen in this series between two teams each too proud and talented to fall too far behind.

"If we want what we want, we have to win on the road,'' said Boston coach Doc Rivers. "And that's just the way it is."

And so it will be, right up to the final minute of Game 7. Followed by overtime.

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