Ali-Frazier III Beckons
It doesn't look like anything special on the official NBA schedule.
March 5 Det @ Bos.
Just one out of each team's Big 82, right? No more important than Cha @ Det on Dec. 9 or Ind @ Bos on Apr. 2, right? It's just the regular season, so how important could it be, right?
"You know what?" inquires Joe Dumars, the president of basketball operations for the Detroit Pistons. "It would be disingenuous for any player to say that when the two top teams in the conference play each other, it is not a significant game. It is a significant game, because this is a game where you are gauging yourself."
So be advised that tonight, at TD Banknorth Garden, we will not be witnessing a routine NBA game.
Coaches traditionally have emphasized to their players the importance of treating the games equally, of never looking too far ahead, of respecting every opponent. But we all know better. Some games have much more value, more buzz, than others.
All NBA games are not created equal. Owners know it. General managers know it. Players know it. Fans know it. The media know it. And coaches know it, too, even though they work hard to perpetuate the fiction that they're all the same.
"Oh, you have to preach that," chuckles Chuck Daly, a man who coached in many a big game in this league before paying full-time attention to his golf game. "You have to preach that, just in case you lose."
Coach Daly is retired in Florida now, but he pays very close attention to the league. You know he'll be in front of his big screen tonight.
"Detroit thinks it will come down to themselves and Boston in the East, and Boston thinks it will come down to themselves and Detroit," he declares. "Of course, Cleveland thinks they're going to be a factor, too.
"I always loved these games, because it was a measuring stick. But you never know how things will transpire. Sometimes you play well, and sometimes you take it too seriously, and things don't turn out so well."
Back in the early '70s, the Celtics and Knicks had a wonderful rivalry. Those were the days before routine Garden sellouts, when the local New York-oriented college kids could purchase enough tickets to create a collegiate, Big 5-like atmosphere, turning the Garden on those glorious Sunday afternoons into the Palestra North.
In the not-too-distant past, the Celtics had serious annual confrontations with the likes of Philadelphia and the Los Angeles Lakers. It would have been ridiculous to pretend that those games weren't of far more interest to the principals than ordinary encounters with the Cavaliers or Kings.
"When the schedule would come out each year," Magic Johnson once told me, "I'd grab it and circle the Boston games. To me, it was The Two and the other 80."
OK, no one in Detroit or Boston was circling anything when the 2007-08 NBA schedule came out. The Celtics were obviously going to be better, but no one ever imagined them to be this good. We are long removed from the days of the (original) Big Three and McFilthy and McNasty, and The Chief refusing to shake hands with (and then slugging) Laimbeer, and the Great Debate over whether Larry, were he black, would, in Isiah Thomas's words, be just "another good guy." Johnny Most - God rest his soul - has been dead for 15 years.
There will be many people in the Garden tonight for whom all these concepts are an abstract. All they know is that the Celtics had better make sure there is a Gino sighting up on the big board late in the fourth quarter.
Tonight's game isn't about rivalry. Tonight's game is about something even more pure: competition.
Tonight's game is about a team with a surprising record of 46-12 trying to secure its hold on first place in the Eastern Conference against a been-there-before opponent with a predictable record of 44-16. A Celtic win will not guarantee they will negotiate the remaining 23 regular-season games well enough to maintain that No. 1 seed and home court. But it sure would help, especially since it would give them a series-concluding 2-1 edge, and thus a potentially valuable tie-breaker if the need should arise.
Conversely, a Detroit win won't mean the Pistons will wind up catching the Celtics. But it sure would be satisfying. Boston has established itself as a new standard of excellence. The Pistons come here having won 15 of their last 18. They would like to instill a little humility into the Celtics.
Doc Rivers will engage in some pregame coachspeak, for sure, but can his heart possibly be in it? He was, after all, a player, and a very good one.
"When I was with the Knicks, and we were playing the Bulls," he recalls, "I couldn't wait for those games.
"I look at this as a fun game. I am looking forward to it. I'm excited. We all are. Clearly, it's a game of meaning, because the home court's at stake. But as a coach, you don't do anything different. It's still not a playoff game. If this were a playoff game, you would."
The first two games between these teams have been intriguing. Detroit knocked off a 20-2 Celtics team, then undefeated at home, back on Dec. 19 when Chauncey Billups up-faked Tony Allen with one-10th of a second left to draw two game-winning free throws in an 87-85 Detroit triumph. Fifteen days later, the Celtics defeated Detroit in Auburn Hills, 92-85, as rookie Glen "Big Baby" Davis scored an unexpected 20 points during a comeback triumph.
It appears a new rivalry has been born.
"I think this sums it up," Rivers says. "Go back and look at the comments after they beat us. Our guys were saying, 'They beat us, and they were jumping up and down as if they'd won a championship.' Then we beat them, and the next day they're saying, 'They beat us, and they were celebrating as if they'd won a championship."'
Mar 5 Det @ Bos. Yeah, it matters.