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.
Chauncey Billups of the visiting and victorious Pistons had many good laughs at their expense Wednesday. In the fourth quarter, he began working Rajon Rondo like a fighter going to the belly. Detroit hopes this position will be the decisive matchup in their born-again rivalry with Boston because Billups holds myriad advantages over Rondo -- two inches, 31 pounds and eight years of NBA experience, with the latter five of those years spent leading Detroit to the conference finals or beyond.
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 Ray Allen to bring the ball up, because the Celtics don't have a ball-handler to back up Rondo.
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 Paul Pierce at the three-point line, then leaking away for the layup that forced Rondo back onto the floor with the Celtics suddenly trailing 78-71 in a game they had controlled for three quarters.
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 Kevin Garnett to come help Rondo. It was like they were at a bullfight screaming for anyone to rescue the fallen toreador as the beast closed in. But the help never came and Billups broke free to feed Antonio McDyess, which led to a pair of free throws that made it 83-78.
Then -- yes, there's more -- Billups drilled a three-pointer over Rondo and barked a laughing "Hah!'' reminiscent of Larry Bird. He turned and settled into his defensive crouch, clapping his hands together not unlike a Ninja waving forward his next victim. Billups had been anticipating this duel with each Celtics win over the first six weeks of the season.
"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 Ali entering the ring against Foreman, whereas the Celtics looked serious and ultimately tight. Near the end of the third quarter, when they had relinquished most of their early 10-point advantage, coach Doc Rivers grabbed at Pierce's hand and slapped him on the backside encouraging him to remain aggressive. But Pierce (11 points on 5-of-16 shooting with four turnovers) was never quite himself, and by rushing up a short-armed baseline jumper that was meant to end the game, he instead provided Billups with 1.7 seconds to steal the win.
After he had up-faked for the decisive free throws with 0.1 second on the clock, Billups credited Tayshaun Prince with giving him the idea just before the inbound of luring in Tony Allen, who has regained neither confidence nor athleticism since knee surgery last season. The image of Billups laughing as he was falling under Allen's contact -- head thrown back, jaws open wide before he hit the floor -- should haunt the Celtics until they next meet again Jan. 5 at Detroit.
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 Tony Parker's career when he was abused by the likes of Stephon Marbury, but he and the Spurs learned the hard way how to combat size and strength with defensive schemes. The Celtics likewise need to figure how Rondo's superior quickness can be forged into a weapon of its own.
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 Gilbert Arenas and Jason Kidd are the only point guards in the East capable of bullying Rondo in the playoffs.
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 Kobe Bryant and LeBron James this year -- should be switched over to Billups, and leave Rondo to chase Rip Hamilton around the floor.
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 Rodney Stuckey, who is expected to support Billups with reliable backup minutes and further enhance Detroit's advantage.
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 Eddie House and Ray Allen that they can homer their way back from any reasonable deficit. But Allen, Garnett and Pierce were also reminded by Detroit that wit and cunning can make the biggest difference of all.