Shall We Do this Again?
You forget sometimes what the captain has endured.
Paul Pierce is the afterthought of the New Wave Celtics, the resident star who has chugged along, doing what he's always done: take (and make) big shots.
He has gladly watched teammate Kevin Garnett bask in the glow of this rejuvenation, understanding that without No. 5 in the house, the future wouldn't be nearly as tantalizing.
Last night, with the Detroit Pistons looking to put a damper on Boston's rising fortunes, Garnett submitted a season-high 31 points. He was brilliant and inspired, and his energy was infectious.
Yet, when it came time to bury the biggest shot of the night, it was Pierce who did the honors.
With the Celtics clinging to a 1-point lead and 5 1/2 minutes left, Pierce sized up a three and nailed it, closing the door on an aggressive Detroit team that plans to see the men in green again when the games matter most.
Pierce will be waiting. He has never played in one of the fabled Celtics-Pistons playoff battles, but has enjoyed a taste of the intensity with these regular-season skirmishes.
Last night was the biggest game of the season for both teams, if for no other reason than it would establish home-court advantage should they finish with the same record. With the regular-season series knotted, 1-1, this was the tiebreaker.
Not that home-court advantage has meant much so far. When you are pitting veterans against veterans and franchises who have been intertwined for decades against one another, there's a lot more at work than whether the game is on a friendly parquet floor with a leprechaun occupying the center circle.
The Pistons already had a legitimate alibi should they stumble at the outset. Their plane, delayed by weather, did not touch down in Boston until 4 in the morning, and, as one Pistons official snorted before the game, "We don't have a shot."
They truly didn't in the first quarter, when they missed 17 of their first 23 looks from the floor (26.1 percent) and were outscored, 17-3, out of the gate.
Ah, but this is the NBA, and no lead is safe - particularly in the first quarter, and particularly against a team with Detroit's mettle.
Did you really think 'Sheed and Chauncey and Rip were going to be content with getting blown out just because they didn't get enough sleep? Forget about it. Hamilton started doing what he does best - slashing to the hole - and Wallace started to challenge KG with his usual array of threes, and some post-up moves. Billups, as usual, was the consummate facilitator.
We've dissected ad nauseam Boston's vulnerability against this club when Rajon Rondo isn't on the floor, but the Pistons looked mighty mortal themselves last night when Chauncey took a breather. Detroit's bench is pretty green when rookie Rodney Stuckey, second-year man Amir Johnson, and second-year man Jason Maxiell are on the floor.
The KG-Wallace matchup in the first half was worth the price of admission. First it was Wallace burying a trey over Garnett's outstretched arm. Then it was Garnett countering with a demonstrative drive to the hole in traffic, 2 of 12 consecutive points he would score to extend the locals' lead to 13 (38-25).
It's simple when it comes to the Pistons. When Wallace is engaged (and Billups is on the floor), they can beat anyone. But when the big man with the hair-trigger temper becomes disinterested, as he is known to do, Detroit loses a considerable chunk of its swagger.
'Sheed was dialed into this one. He nailed a 3-pointer over Glen Davis to kick off the third quarter, then was hacked on a fallaway by Kendrick Perkins on the next possession.
Wallace paused near the Celtics' bench just long enough to declare to coach Doc Rivers, "You got no one that can guard me, Doc."
Then he stepped up to the line and missed both free throws.
Of course it came down to the wire. Pierce followed his clutch three with a fast-break layup from Rondo off a steal, and Detroit was trailing by 8 (85-77) with 2:56 left. The Pistons did not recover. The Celtics finished off the 90-78 win with the kick of a strong shot of whiskey.
The Celtics enjoyed a superlative performance from their blue-collar workhorse, Perkins. They witnessed their young point guard, Rondo, grow up a little more. And they reveled in the MVP performance of KG, who has allowed Celtics fans to dream of greatness again.
While last night was an intriguing snapshot of possible playoff endeavors, it certainly is only that - a glimpse of what is to come. If the teams meet again this season, the Celtics will presumably have Sam Cassell (and an active P.J. Brown) in tow. While Boston's grizzled guys continue to gush over the addition of Sudden Sam, the Detroit locker room was decidedly less impressed. There is a feeling among their brethren that Cassell is at the end of the line. While the Celtics will look to him to improve their pick-and-roll opportunities on the offensive end, the Pistons were salivating at the possibility of torching him with the same weapon - the pick-and-roll - on the other end.
"Sam can't guard it," said one Piston vet. "Never could. I hope he's out there at the end of games."
Even Detroit coach Flip Saunders offered, "Defending pick-and-rolls is not Sam's forte."
Fighting words? Nah. There will be more intriguing subplots than that if we are all fortunate enough to watch these guys duke it out in the second season (like, for instance, the bad blood between KG and Antonio McDyess that dates to January 2007, when KG was with Minnesota and the two engaged in a shoving match that got both ejected).
Stick around. With any luck at all, the fun has just begun.