In one night before Christmas, the Celtics realized their worst fears for the New Year: that the momentum of their fast start would flame out, and their issues at point guard would be exposed and exploited.
With 6:54 to go in the Pistons' 87-85 win, he bodied Rondo off the dribble and out of the game with his fifth personal foul. That forced
Long before that, the Celtics' second-half offense had frozen up as the Pistons began to contest shots and Billups stalked Rondo. Now a minute into Rondo's benching, Billups was closing out on
Billups then took Rondo baseline and twirled in a turnaround over him, and shortly thereafter he was isolated on Rondo again. By now the smartest fans in Boston -- the ones in the expensive courtside seats -- were on their feet yelling and waving and pulling at their hair for
Then -- yes, there's more -- Billups drilled a three-pointer over Rondo and barked a laughing "Hah!'' reminiscent of
"I hope they win every game again until we play them,'' Billups said after going for 28 points and eight assists. "I love us being able to fly under the radar a little bit. I think that's when we're at our best, when we're able to hunt people and everybody else gets the credit.''
Detroit approached this game with a sense of playfulness, like
After he had up-faked for the decisive free throws with 0.1 second on the clock, Billups credited
That image, of course, is a good thing for the Celtics, who have a chance to benefit more from this loss than they would have from any sort of victory.
There were many times early in
Rondo's virtuoso first-half display of 14 points (7-of-9 shooting) with five assists wasn't impressive as much as it was odd. The formula for Boston's league-leading 20-2 start did not feature Rondo as the dominant player, and there was no way he was going to keep that up. It had no lasting impact. He would have been far more effective establishing an attack that the Celtics could have continued to develop throughout the second half.
But he and his team needed a night like this -- with many more yet to come -- to realize what doesn't work and what does.
"We wanted to make him a scorer, make him finish, make him shoot jumpers, and he did that,'' said Billups, who choked Rondo to no points, two turnovers and two assists in the second half. "It was what we wanted.''
Just as too much should not be made of Boston's first loss at home, it also would be a mistake to give the Celtics too much credit for a 20-2 start that came with little adversity and a favorable schedule absent of title contenders. Was any kind of precedent established by this one game? After all, Billups and potentially
But the problem in Boston isn't Rondo. On the contrary: He is invaluable as Boston's only point guard, and a potentially dynamic one at that. The real issue is that the Celtics have no backup alternative to Rondo. Maybe if Tony Allen recovers, he can become their Billups stopper; or maybe Ray Allen -- who has covered
But none of that will change the fact that when Rondo isn't in the game, the Celtics encounter significant difficulty bringing the ball up against pressure and getting into their offense. It's going to be hard for them to acquire a complementary veteran backup with size because they dealt so many pieces to acquire Garnett and Ray Allen, and so they have no meaty, short-term contracts in reserve to offer in a midseason trade. Meanwhile, the Pistons await the return of 6-5 rookie
Which in turn lays an ever greater burden on Boston's elder stars to reroute the game away from the occasionally difficult matchup. The Celtics were consoled by the outrageous last-minute threes of