Heading into Game 5 here Wednesday with the series even at 2-2, Boston has looked slightly the better team as its leading stars, Kevin Garnett (against Rasheed Wallace) and Paul Pierce (vs. Tayshaun Prince), have dominated their individual matchups. But those advantages have been neutralized by the play of Richard Hamilton and the surprising Antonio McDyess, who are outplaying Ray Allen and Kendrick Perkins, respectively.
So the series has seesawed back and forth -- as anticipated all year long -- based on the duel between second-year point guard Rajon Rondo and All-Star Chauncey Billups, who has been limited by the strained right hamstring he suffered three weeks ago. To put it simply, the Celtics won Games 1 and 3 when Rondo was successfully looking for his own shot; the Pistons responded in Games 2 and 4 when Billups aggressively created offense for his teammates.
"We've got to go to another level,'' Pierce said after practice Tuesday. "The team that plays defense is the team that's going to win, so we've got to pick up our energy level.''
In the Celtics' case, strong defense against Billups leads to better offensive opportunities for Rondo, whether in transition or when he's confidently shooting the open jumpers that funnel his way after the ball has moved from side to side. One surprise has been Billups' failure to exploit his size advantage against Rondo.
"He hasn't been posting [up] as much,'' Rondo said. "But you never know, in any game he can go to the block and get a lot of points.''
Instead of bullying the Celtics at the point, Detroit has deployed rookie backup Rodney Stuckey to attack the basket. But the Pistons' strengths have been relatively marginal, based on the consistency of role players like McDyess and Stuckey. Among its usual offensive leaders, the only dependable go-to scorer for Detroit in this series has been Hamilton (21.5 ppg), while the Celtics have been able to establish Garnett (22.0) and Pierce (18.8) -- a far more reliable approach heading into the most critical games of the year.
Pierce has been especially important. He has controlled his matchup with Prince, who was 7-of-30 from the field against Boston during the regular season and has continued to struggle at 31.5 percent for his 10.3 points in these four games. An aggressive Pierce, meanwhile, is shooting 46.8 percent in this round. Even when he was having a 3-for-14 night in Boston's Game 4 loss at Detroit, he still got to the free-throw line enough (11 attempts) to finish with 16 points.
At practice Tuesday, Pierce put the importance of Game 5 in perspective for his teammates: "I told the guys, 'We've got a great opportunity. We don't get this opportunity too many times in our career. You've got to go out there and play like it's our last because you never know when it's going to happen again.' "
A trip to the NBA Finals is there for either team to claim. The Celtics need to keep exploiting Garnett and Pierce, while the Pistons need one of their under-scoring stars -- Billups, Prince or Wallace -- to join Hamilton and McDyess in trying to seize this rare chance.