WALTHAM - The last time the Celtics played Detroit, they were taken about as seriously as a Carrot Top memoir might be by the Pulitzer Prize review board.
With a playoff berth wrapped up entering the final game of the 2006-07 season, the Pistons sat Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton and Chris Webber, allowing the far end of the bench to play against the Eastern Conference's worst team. Amir Johnson had the best game of his career (20 points, 12 rebounds), and Flip Murray sank the winning jumper with less than a second remaining in a 91-89 victory that further kicked sand in the collective face of a Celtics squad already smeared by indignity.
It is almost unfathomable to consider how much matters have changed during the past eight months. When the Pistons tip off against the Celtics tonight at TD Banknorth Garden, they will be doing so against a completely rebuilt team that has taken control of the top spot in the East. In fact, the C's are the only team in the conference with a better winning percentage than Detroit.
After tying a franchise record by improving to 20-2 with Saturday's victory at Toronto, the Celtics can stake claim to the best start in team history by winning tonight's showdown between the NBA's top two defensive teams.
Regardless of the Green's incredible run, outspoken Pistons star Rasheed Wallace maintained this week that all Eastern Conference teams still have to measure up to perennial power Detroit. The emotionally grounded Celtics agreed.
``They're one of the better teams in the league, and to be honest, teams do rate themselves when they play them, so (Wallace's claim) is accurate,'' Kevin Garnett said.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers said the Pistons' experience and success allows them the right to make such claims.
``Detroit has won in every situation you can think of,'' Rivers said. ``They've been in Game 7s; they've won championships; they've lost some heartbreakers. . . . Every imaginable situation, they've been in and we haven't. We've been in nothing. So yeah, (Wallace) is right.''
Rivers also said having two losses at this point will mean next to nothing soon.
``If we win (tonight) and break this record and don't get anywhere we want, it doesn't mean anything,'' Rivers said.
Guard Ray Allen, who is expected to return to action tonight after missing the past two games with a sprained right ankle, said there is no reason to gloat about the great start.
``I don't think we ever step into a situation thinking we've got this won based on our record because that record makes us more of a target,'' he said.
Billups can't wait to see how the teams match up.
``We just look forward to it,'' the point guard said. ``That's the best team in the NBA right now. It's been a long time since we've been able to say that going against another team in the Eastern Conference.''
Billups said the Pistons have an answer to the Celtics' ``Big Three'' of Allen, Garnett and Paul Pierce.
``We beat you in numbers, not just with one, two or three guys,'' he said. ``We've got six or seven guys who can get hot and hurt you every single night. That's how we've always done it. They do have three great players - probably three Hall of Famers, but we've got some good players.''
The Celtics enter tonight with the NBA's top defense, having surrendered only 86.5 points per game. Detroit is second at 91.2 points.
``It's commitment,'' Rivers said. ``It's that simple. When you have every single guy committed and understanding, that's why you win.
``There are a lot of teams that play defense but still think the offensive end is where you win. For the most part, we are starting to believe that we win with our defense. If we make a run, earlier we thought it was an offensive run, but we're trying to convince them it's actually a defensive run. The only reason you're making a run is you're making stops on the other end.''